Why Is Washington So Polarized?

Despite President Obama’s recent overtures to Republican members of Congress, people who have been around for a while all seem to agree: Never in living memory has the atmosphere on Capitol Hill and in Washington, D.C., generally been so toxic.

I don’t find this to be true out in the hinterland. The country as a whole is divided politically. But it’s not obviously more divided than it was 50 years ago. The toxicity of politics is a D.C. phenomenon. What’s more, the polarization is worse among the elites. It seems that the more education they have, the more polarized people become.

Why is that?

And I don’t like anybody very much.

I have a theory. Any period in which there is radical political change is likely to be a period when raw emotions are strained. The reason: political change means we are moving from an old system to a new one. When that happens, people who were wedded to the old system will perceive that they are losing something — a way of life, a shared way of looking at the world, institutions that they relied on.

We are living in such a period. Over the past 30 years the entire world has seen a complete reversal in the political trend of the twentieth century. There was a time, not long ago, when many of us believed that the march toward communism and socialism was inevitable. Country after country moved left. In the first eight decades of the twentieth century, I can’t think of a single place where individual liberty increased — unless you count the aftermath of war in Germany, Italy and Japan.

Collectivism, it seemed, was unstoppable.

Then, in the last two decades of the last century, everything changed. Communism was dismantled almost everywhere. It was not only politically dismantled. Collectivism was intellectually discredited. All around the world, a new wave of thinking emerged — one which saw that the left was wrong. Wrong about everything. Wrong about communism. Wrong about socialism. Wrong about the welfare state.

In country after country, the power of government was rolled back — through deregulation and privatization. It’s hard to exaggerate how fundamental this change has been. When Ronald Reagan was president, not even the most conservative politician would dare talk about privatizing Social Security. This was true in other countries as well. Yet today, more than 30 countries around the world have fully or partially privatized their social security systems. We haven’t done it yet. But we’ve discovered that a presidential candidate can talk about it and still win two elections.

About 40 countries now have a flat tax and tax rates have been generally falling almost everywhere. In Europe, talk of privatizing health, education and welfare was once as taboo as talk of privatizing Social Security was in the U.S. No longer.

Sweden, once thought of as the model for the modern welfare state, now has a full-fledged school voucher system, has privatized large segments of its health care system and is on the way toward privatization of almost all of its welfare state. Britain, which once boasted that its system of socialized medicine was “the envy of the world” has been privatizing health services for the past decade. Since 2008, National Health Service (NHS) patients have been able to choose any provider (NHS, private for-profit, private non-profit, etc.) they wish for elective care.

The dismantling of the state has not been smooth or even continuous. Some countries have seen reversals. Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador and France come to mind. In our country we have gone from Bill Clinton’s declaration that the era of big government is over to a massive new entitlement created by ObamaCare.

These reversals give people on the left hope that the trend is not inevitable. Rather than being resigned to defeat, they see hope that collectivism might rise again.

A persistent myth is the idea that polarization and toxicity in politics has originated on the right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tea Party folks are…well…just plain folks with a point of view. If you want to find real bitterness, go interview the participants of Occupy Wall Street.

Paul Krugman is a New York Times columnist who routinely questions the motives, the ethics and even the sanity of people who disagree with him. You can’t find editorials on the right that come close to his routine level of vitriol.

For the most part, the left in this country feels deeply threatened by events occurring all over the world. Every cherished belief of theirs is proving to be wrong. The institutions they revere are being dismantled.

They’re mad.

Comments (38)

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  1. Brian Williams. says:

    Great post. Perhaps polarization in Washington has always existed, but was disguised by practices such as earmark spending where one party could “purchase” bipartisanship from the opposing party. When earmarks were banned, polzarization increased.

  2. Fred Stern says:

    You are intentionally being provocative. I know it because of your folksy comments about the tea party being just ‘plain folks’ and your comment about right wing editorials.

    YOu don’t really believe that. You can’t really believe it. It flies in the face of the empirical evidence and you were trained in graduate school to consider the evidence.

  3. Buster says:

    Why Is Washington So Polarized?

    Washington is so polarized because each of the two major parties has a different vision for the future, constituency and idea of how economics works. For example, I read that the Democratic Party’s idea of solving the budget crisis involves primarily cutting tax expenditures (i.e. removing tax deductions) and raising taxes on the rich. By contrast, cutting actual spending is considered to be balancing the budget on the “backs of the poor” so that cannot be an option. Put this in prospective, the Democrats are the party of tax & spend!

  4. Peter Ferrara says:

    John you are so right. The nastiness of our politics arises from the left. Contrast MSNBC with the always calm and professional Fox News. There is no analogue on the right to the screaming Ed Schultz, even the much criticized Rush Limbaugh, who is a paragon of reason by comparison. You are also so right about Krugman. There is no columnist on the right who is as analogously as nasty, accusatory, and unreasoned as he is. In my opinion the right is often ineffectively polite and restrained. The real problem in our politics is you can’t reach anyone on the left with reason.

  5. Jack says:

    The past 40 years, as you mention, has seen massive political polarization among U.S. constituents. Most of it is due in part to ideological shifts. More democracy ultimately resulted in more scrutiny of what exactly democracy means.

    I’m not certain this post helps ameliorate the issue 🙁

  6. Jordan says:

    Taking Krugman’s advice on health economics is like asking Anwar Sadat’s (if you could wake him up) advice on the peace making process. Just because he won a nobel prize doesn’t make him in an expert in everything.

  7. Patel says:

    I think a fair response of the dilemma you describe in this blog is briefly analyzed in this article from the economist: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21571136-politicians-both-right-and-left-could-learn-nordic-countries-next-supermodel

    In the article, the writer explores how certain nordic-heritage countries have a healthy size government and yet a vibrant private sectors. Somehow, they have been able to capitalize on the positives from both the private and the public sector.

  8. Desai says:

    “The Tea Party folks are…well…just plain folks with a point of view,” I agree, and by extension, so too are the people who are taking part in the Occupy Wall Street. Both groups are taking out their frustration because they are victims of the current broken system. Both groups are plain people with different points of view. I think it is unfair that the Occupy Wall Street groups is villainized in this post.

  9. Kumar says:

    To Patel, your article focuses on a very small subset of European countries. Lets not forget that certain European countries like the PIGS have struggling economies because they have over sized government that cripples the private sector.

    To Desai, yes I agree that both groups are victims of the system, but do realize that the Tea Party have a focused set of ideals on how to govern our economy, whereas the Occupy Wall Street group is just an amalgamation of people who are victims of a broken system without a clear message on how to govern society. That said, I don’t think their rancor is misdiagnosed, they should be angry with the system, but also provide an alternative vision.

  10. Roger Hall says:

    Despite my own views, or lack of, I find it so easy to point out the strong bias within this post. For example, the Tea Partiers are simply people with a point of view but the Occupy Wall Street folks are violent and angry people. Really? Plus, I don’t think one extreme view is better than the other. There is evidence that backs up both sides and the sensible solution always seems to come to a moderate stance.

  11. Peter Ferrara says:

    The contrast between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street further illustrates the careful, reasoned arguments in this post. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are not mirror images of each other, right and left. The Tea Party consistently illustrates polite, reasoned political participation, with even its rallies noted for leaving their public places cleaner than how they found them. Occupy is noted for breaking the law, violent crime during its protests, trashing public places and in my opinion unreasoned, unfocused discourse that fails to even make a coherent point, or present a coherent agenda. Personally, I think they each perfectly represent their respective constituencies.

  12. Anthony Zucker says:

    I am personally tired of ideological arrogance. Social science is not an exact science, so to assure that one system works so much better than another is arrogant. Moreover, no one system will ever be able to work in pure fashion. As humans, we will always have to rely on a mixture of ideals that conform our social system and who is to say that the premise behind our current ideological differences won’t change drastically in the next century or so?

  13. Jamison says:

    American politics have always been partisan. Aaron Burr and Alexander shot at each other over personal issues that stemmed from politics. Also, one reason article III is so short is becuase no one could agree on what to do with the judiciary and the gains made from the Revolutionary War were coming undone.

  14. Ken says:

    Great post.

  15. Bob Geist says:

    The “take over wall street” crowd is not villanized. They villanized others. Pointing this out is simply accurate. The Tea party folks never villanized others. There’s the difference.

    John, I think your analysis of the root cause of polarization is right on target.

    Thanks, Bob

  16. John Seater says:

    I disagree to some extent with both the original post and the general tone of the comments on it.

    It is true that communism is decreasing world-wide, but it is increasing in the US. It seems to me that may well be part of the problem. The federal government now has its fingers in many pies that it did not touch when I was a kid. There was no Department of Education or no Department of Energy. There was no Medicare. There was no Environmental Protection Agency (and for quite a while after there was one, it did not think it could issues orders on the conduct of all aspects of economic behavior). Because the national government much bigger and expansive than it used to be, the stakes are much higher than they used to be.

    Not only that, but the kinds of things the government has gotten into are incredibly complex and best left to individuals to sort out in the marketplace. At various levels, government now is trying to set both prices and quantities in aspects of medical care. It does the same in education. It does it in the energy industry. It does it in the labor market.

    Well, if the government has made itself the one responsible for prices and quantities, we should not be surprising that arguments over what the government does and how it does it have become much more strident and vicious. What used to happen in the anonymous marketplace now happens in the very public political arena.

  17. Donna says:

    Thanks, John for giving your honest opinion and analysis, rather than trying to cowtow to so-called “intellectuals” in the media and elsewhere. Thought leaders on the right (or left) could benefit from your example. In the throes of cycles of complexity and rapid change, we need to be more open to new ideas, but not afraid to vigorously oppose ideas that we believe don’t work or make us worse off. The Tea Party survives and grows as a mature community organization, because it continues to stand for a few basic principles and has a coherent mission.

  18. sabre51 says:

    Great post- I think you are right that this is an important factor. But I think, from a purely scientific perspective, this can be explained even more simply.

    Not sure if you are familiar with Robin Hanson’s view of politics as social presentation (seem to remember seeing it on your blog, actually, but can’t find it now). I agree with him and I think politics is becoming more intense among elites mostly because elites now base more of their social identity on their political views. With constant news coverage, any political action from elites (business or entertainment in addition to governmental) will likely get out and affect that elite’s status. The more of your status rests on your politics, the more sensitive you are to any perceived slight and the more willing to attack others to prove your own credibility. As Scott Sumner has cited, in 1910 senators used to discuss advanced monetary economics during sessions of Congress. Today, that is too juicy an opportunity for someone to attack the speaker for being too detached from the desires of the people and make him/herself look in touch and empathetic.

    There are many other factors as well, but I think the main trend has been going on for some time. Before 1800, there were no real political battles of the sort you see today- the elites understood that they were fighting for power and didn’t really bother to hide it from their subjects. It continues to be more important to hide that battle, and so using politics as a front is the main way that happens in our society.

    Great post again! I love your blog. Here’s the link to Robin’s original piece:


  19. Al Baun says:

    I appreciated this post very much, even though it edged a little to the right. In comparison with ‘non-press’ media, it walked the fence with grace. There were many good points and it took a longer term view of our world.

    Obamacare is now one of many entitlements … and will be modified over time as all others will, to best fit national conditions and sentiment of the times. Yes, people are afraid of change and it sometimes affects their ability to hear rhetoric and ‘screaming’ coming from their side of the fence.

  20. Kyle says:

    @John Seater, I don’t see the correlation between big government and rising communism in the U.S. And depending on when you were a kid, the New Deal meant every pie… well you can extend your own metaphor.

  21. Rick Jackson says:

    Simply Brilliant, John!!

  22. Ed says:

    The main issues raised by Occupy Wall Street have been social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector.

    The Tea Party movement advocates strict adherence to the United States Constitution, reducing U.S. government spending and taxes, and reducing the U.S. national debt and federal budget deficit.

    Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are both correct and have much more in common than their extremist ideologues would like everyone to believe.

  23. H. James Prince says:

    “Contrast MSNBC with the always calm and professional Fox News.”

    I sincerely hope this is a joke, Peter. See this study from Fairleigh-Dickinson University: http://publicmind.fdu.edu/2012/confirmed/final.pdf

  24. Linda Gorman says:

    Anthony Zucker said “I am personally tired of ideological arrogance. Social science is not an exact science, so to assure that one system works so much better than another is arrogant.”

    Good thing that no assumptions are necessary, even with inexact methods. Data are abundant. For starters, take a look at the number of people murdered by governments in the 20th century. The systems responsible for the highest numbers of deaths were most definitively not systems organized and functioning as market oriented republics or democracies.

    Conclusion: some types of government are more murderous than others. No assumption or ideological arrogance required, one must simply be willing to face reality and look at the facts.

  25. Peter Ferrara says:

    Mr. Prince, Of course, Fox News is the ONLY network that covers both sides, where you are as likely to see material from AEI or NCPA as from Brookings or the Center for American Progress. You won’t see that on ANY other network. You may not know that because you don’t have as much experience dealing with the media. As for your press release from Fairleigh Dickenson, how would they know what the correct answers are to any of the questions? Moreover, how did you think that release was in any way a response to my observation that Fox News is always calm and professional, in stark contrast to MSNBC featuring Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton.

  26. Keith says:

    Slave master: Hey there, fella, how about you and your family come work for me for free?
    Slave: Thanks, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not.
    Slave master: OK, how about this: you and your family work for free for me on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. The rest of the week is yours.
    Slave: I’d rather not.
    Slave master: Goddammit, why won’t you compromise?!?

    Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it aptly illustrates the observation that the goals of the collectivist are incompatible with the goals of a man who wishes to be free. Compromise/non-polarization = loss of freedom, at least until the tide turns and it’s the collectivists who are on their heels.

  27. steve says:

    “Mr. Prince, Of course, Fox News is the ONLY network that covers both sides, where you are as likely to see material from AEI or NCPA as from Brookings or the Center for American Progress. You won’t see that on ANY other network. ”

    I have to assume this is parody. I read widely across the spectrum, but dont watch TV much. There is no shortage of vitriol on either side. The better explanation for the animosity is the 24/7 media and the people who make money off of perpetuating faux outrage.


  28. steve says:

    “some types of government are more murderous than others. No assumption or ideological arrogance required, one must simply be willing to face reality and look at the facts.”

    Good thing no one is advocating communism or fascism.


  29. Peter Ferrara says:

    Steve, If you don’t watch TV, then you shouldn’t be commenting on TV. The quote you reference was a comment on TV, which you say you don’t watch much. I don’t read widely across the spectrum, but only widely among the conservative media, and I don’t see ANY vitriol there. I see reasoned discourse.

  30. Karl Stecher says:

    Britain’s socialized medicine system to me was never the envy of anyone. Since it was instituted, 1) decreased survival rates for measurable entities such as lung and prostate and breast cancer in comparison with the US are easily noted; 2) medical research coming from Britain seems to have decreased markedly over the past half century plus; 3) the British health care system is a massive expensive bureaucracy. You mention privatization now; I’m not over there and don’t have any feel for whether the govt pays anything for private care. When I was there in the late 60s, people could choose private care if they wanted to avoid the delays in treatment which had already appeared in the nationalized system.
    The US government (Medicare and Medicaid) is the “single UNDERpayer” we have now, paying, as I have noted before, the equivalent of 80-85 cents a gallon to a gas station owner if an analogy to the pitifully poor reimbursement to doctors may be made. Further, with Obamacare/Abysmalcare, plus the bump in Medicare caused by baby boomers attaining 65 plus, more patients will be in this underpaying class…leading to longer lines, and the continued flight of many of the best and brightest from choosing a career in medicine.
    For Congress: bitter political battles have gone on in Washington since the 1700s. It’s just that now, with progression of information: newspapers, radio, television, computers, easily accessible blogs, twitter…the game is evident to us as it is being played. But I do agree with you, John, that it has become generally much less civil in recent years. And a closer eye is kept on the Congress that spends the money earned by people and sent to Washington in taxes.
    “We the people” are more instantly informed when representatives in Congress vote against our interests.
    I have no solution on how to resolve the continuing warring and bitterness as the two factions of ideology fight each other.

  31. Al Baun says:

    Mr. Ferrara, I thought your initial comment that ‘Conservatives are calm, rational, and never scream’ was facetious, but your continued defense of that comment leads me to believe you don’t get out much. Your admitted penchant for a strict diet of rightwing ideology does put you at a disadvantage with regard to reality. Unfortunately for my sanity, I watch and listen to every television and radio political ‘entertainment’ station there is. Yes, Ed Schultz does get energized occasionally and Rev. Sharpton has a pulpit voice, but you must have missed the many exasperated ‘screams’ of Beck, Hannity, O’Reilly, and Levine. The UK even terror listed your Dr. Savage for his vitriol.

    Screaming aside, it’s the content on the far right that most disturbs me. Its negativity and hypocrisy far outweighs that of the left . “I believe in the Constitution … but he’s not my President”; “My taxes are too high,” though most Tea’z have an effective Federal tax rate of less than 5%; “Leave my medical decisions alone … but you can’t have an abortion.”; “Get rid of everyone’s Socialist Obamacare benefits … but leave my Medicare, Medicaid, VA, or Tricare untouched.”; “Provide my grandkids with good schools, clean air, clean water, and safe streets … and eliminate the Dept. of Education, the EPA, and cut teacher and police budgets at the same time.”; “Eliminate the UN and globalism … but keep my cheap Chinese imports coming.”; “Obama is not a citizen … he’s a fascist … he’s a communist … he’s destroying America … he’s Muslim … he’s, he’s, he’s.”

    Calm and Rational? Mr. Ferrara, please change the channel occasionally.

  32. Al says:

    @Al Baun skip the hyperbole and look at the facts on the ground.

    OWS representing the left: Violence, death, rape, urinating and defecating in the streets or on patrol cars just to list a bit of the havoc created by OWS.

    Tea Party representing a more conservative element.: Almost none of the above or none of the above.

  33. Peter Ferrara says:

    Mr. Baun, I have $100 in my pocket for you if you can find a prior statement by me that “Conservatives are calm, rational and never scream.” I said Fox News is calm and professional. Michael Savage and Mark Levine are not correspondents for Fox News. Hannity is calm and professional. Beck made a career out of running clips of actual statements made by folks on the left but that was somehow unacceptable behavior. Who made the comments you quote? I dont recognize those as statements by correspondents of Fox News. But it is not just you. It is my long experience with critics of “the right” that they in general have trouble with reading comprehension.

  34. Ed says:

    “Why is Washington so polarized?”: The government is dividing and conquering its people. The more they engage us in fights over extreme issues, the weaker we get. They do not want common ground and it does not matter which party is in control. The policies are all the same. Look… Romney basically wrote the Affordable Care Act. Which side is more divisive is a fool’s argument.

  35. Paul Nelson says:

    Three to four hundred years ago, the decision to migrate to this land from Europe was based on a desire to leave their nation’s highly centralized and coercive government. And so, now, we have the most inefficient healthcare industry in the world and a national maternal mortality rate that has nearly doubled in the last 22 years. Would anyone doubt that the transition to a coercive Federal government and to an inefficient and ineffective health care industry are related?

  36. Al Baun says:

    Mr. Ferrara, please note that I did not use “quotation” marks on your assertion. I used ‘assertion’ marks which combines several quotes and assertions, made by the speaker, into a singular assertion derived by the reader.

    In your opening remarks you said, “The nastiness of our politics arises from the left. Contrast MSNBC with the always calm and professional Fox News. There is no analogue on the right to the screaming Ed Schultz, even the much criticized Rush Limbaugh, who is a paragon of reason by comparison.” does give the reader the impression that you are asserting that, ‘Liberals are nasty, conservatives don’t scream, and the likes of Fox news and Limbaugh are calm and rational’, Et.el. ‘Conservatives are calm, rational, and never scream.’

    Since you do not attempt to argue the hypocracy points I made on my last entry, I assume you are consuming humble pie. Please apply the $100 to a Rachel Maddow subscription for yourself, or on a book of internet punctuation.

    With all due respect.

  37. Peter Ferrara says:

    Al, oh I see your logic. Your comment ‘I am a Marxist Leninist and I want to bring down America as the world’s prime example of immoral greedy capitalism’ is the most honest comment I have every seen from a Left wing agitator. I congratulate you on your candor. But your “Internet Punctuation,” which you think allows you to put words in my mouth does not earn you $100 but 100 lashes for shameless nonsense. Please show up at my house without your shirt on and I will tie you to a post in the front yard and administer your well deserved punishment. I will accept Rachel Maddow as an acceptable stand in. Please buy and read two books, one on English, and a second on Aristotelian logic.

  38. Rich Osness says:

    Excellent post and very entertaining and revealing comments.

    Is it possible that many of today’s political participants are resorting to harsh rhetoric to cover the lack of difference in their positions?

    Paul Ryan’s first “draconian budget” was about 2% less than the “extravagant” budgets of others. Both of the dominant sides want to reform medicare and medicaid, when real change would be either ending both or nationalizing all health care resources and drafting all health care professionals.

    Limited government is very difficult to maintain. I believe the realistic options are to eliminate government influence in a sector or accept total government control. Then we can fight over who controls the government