Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Recipe for Gridlock?

Amy E. Black


June 22, 2012

By Amy E. Black

For the past 25 years, the Pew Research Center has been conducting surveys that measure continuity and change in the political culture. Over the years, their surveys have revealed enduring differences based on race, education, income, religiosity and gender. Pew released the latest installment of the project, the 2012 American Values Survey, earlier this month. Although the report noted many interesting trends, the largest gap in the 2012 study—and the only one to have widened significantly—is rising party polarization, the divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Partisans have sharp differences in opinions, and those differences are growing wider. Republicans are much more likely to say they are conservatives, and Democrats are more likely to identify as liberals. In some ways, these results are common sense; the Republican Party is the natural home for political conservatives, just as political liberals will most easily align with Democrats.

But more interesting and paradoxical results emerge when we read these patterns alongside other data points from the survey. Consider a few other findings:

  • The partisan divide isn’t the only pattern on the rise; so is the number of Americans who are political independents. More respondents labeled themselves as Independent (38 percent) than identified with either party (32 percent Democrat and 24 percent Republican).
  • The underlying ideological distribution of adult Americans has changed little in the past decade. In 2000, 35 percent of respondents were conservative, 37 percent were moderate, and 18 percent were liberal. Currently, 36 percent are conservative, 37 percent are moderate and 22 percent are liberal.
  • Republicans and Democrats report high levels of dissatisfaction with their own party. Only 6 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic say their party is doing an excellent job standing up for their traditional positions, and 58 percent rank party performance only fair or poor. Republicans and those who lean Republican are even more disaffected. A mere 4 percent rate their party’s performance excellent, and seven in ten (71 percent) rate it only fair or poor.

The results from the Pew study mirror a national trend that has been growing among elites for many years. Over the past two decades, elected officials have become more ideologically polarized. This pattern has been most pronounced in the U.S. Congress. The most liberal Republican in the House of Representatives is now more conservative than the most conservative House Democrat; political moderates from either party are a vanishing breed. (To see this represented in graphs, watch this short video clip.)

Yet, even as elected officials and citizen activists are growing more polarized, the underlying ideological distribution of the electorate has stayed much the same. It should be no surprise that voters are dissatisfied with the political parties; fewer and fewer voters are finding a natural political home with either Republicans or Democrats.

Playing to party activists may reap short-term benefits, but the long-term consequences of political polarization are far from benign. Elected officials are less likely to reach across party lines. With less room for deliberation and compromise, much of the essential work of government is grinding to a halt. The rapid turnover in party control in recent federal elections exacerbates the problem. Lawmakers spend more time pointing fingers and posturing than they do searching for solutions and serving the common good.

In a time of great uncertainty and global instability, we need visionary leaders who are willing to wrestle with complexity, make hard choices and demonstrate political courage. Voters need to stay engaged with the process and reward those elected officials who seek to secure the long-term public good. In short, we need to move away from gridlock and back to the hard but essential work of governing.

—Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College and author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Faith, and Reason (2012).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”