Polarization as Strategy

Matt Yglesias had a very interesting post yesterday about the recent SOPA debate, and the success of opponents to that legislation. He made five points, and it would be hard to argue with any of them: money counts, but once you have enough resources to communicate, having more money doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win the battle; it is easier to stop change than it is to effectuate it. But I found his final two observations–reproduced below–particularly interesting.

Polarization is an illusion of agenda-control: SOPA/PIPA was a completely bipartisan endeavor, promoted by Republican Lamar Smith in the House and Democrat Pat Leahy in the Senate. The opposition was bipartisan too. Democrat Ron Wyden played the crucial role in delaying PIPA in the Senate, but Tea Partiers led the opposition in the House. Nancy Pelosi became a vocal opponent, and at last night’s debate all the Republican presidential candidates were suddenly in opposition. This is a stark contrast to the narrative of partisan polarization, but it illustrates that the parties are polarized in part because the leadership deliberately promotes a polarizing agenda. Leaders deliberately put issues that unite their caucuses on the agenda. When happenstance causes the agenda to be dominated by something outside the main structure of partisanship, the polarization dynamic breaks down.

Public engagement matters: One key difference between this and, say, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act is that SOPA/PIPA opponents actually got in the arena and did politics instead of complaining about how this showed that politics is corrupt and stupid. It was the whole boring dreary “call your congressman, sign this petition” rigamarole. Yes, often done in creative and innovating and webby ways. But still fundamentally about the idea that citizens need to communicate their views to elected officials. Members of congress, just like regular people, only have deep commitments to a few priorities. When they suddenly learn that they’ve mis-judged how many of their constituents care about something and which side they’re on, they’re happy to change positions.

The reminder that grass-roots political action can work is timely, but we’ve heard it before. The observation about polarization as a deliberate political tactic is new, at least to me, and certainly seems consistent with our contemporary political environment.

In the Indiana Statehouse–at least according to my lobbyist friends–you can find Rs and Ds on both sides of such issues as the public transportation referendum, or the smoking ban. Increasingly, you can even find a few Republicans defecting from the GOPs anti-gay agenda. But  propose measures that involve partisan power and party funding, like “Right to Work,” and fuzzy lines suddenly become sharp. As Yglesias points out, the same phenomenon occurs in Congress. Raising taxes on the wealthy is a good example.

Responsible legislative leaders would try to minimize the issues that create such stark divisions, so that the people’s business could get done in a thoughtful–or at least civil–fashion. (At this point, most citizens would settle for having our  business done at all.) They would try to establish and strengthen lines of communication, and build trust.

Irresponsible leaders who care only about political power, who don’t care about doing the people’s business, promote polarization and the demonization of the folks on the other side of the aisle.  Those tactics may help them solidify their control, but they undermine both democratic processes and public confidence in government.

There’s a reason Congress has an 11% approval rating. It’s probably just as well there’s no polling on approval of the Indiana General Assembly.


  1. “It’s probably just as well there’s no polling on approval of the Indiana General Assembly.”

    Actually there is, or was……but when the results were compiled, those who engage in scientific polling were faced with the equivalent of the discover that the earth revolves around the sun and not the converse. How does one deal with a NEGATIVE number? What’s the meaning of a MINUS percentage approval rating? So the results were shredded and the participants sworn to secrecy. Sort of a mathmatical Don’t Ask Don;t Tell.

  2. I don’t get the “irresponsibility” of legislatively or privately promoting fiscal sanity. Both parties got us into this mess. President Obama’s federal administration refuses to face the eventual consequences of literally spending billions we don’t have every day- as did the Bush administration. The biggest difference is we’re closer now to a yawning cliff of serious currency devaluation, affecting all our lifestyles. When you spend lots of money you really don’t have in your household, are the consequences good?

    I continue to believe the biggest magnitude of “partisanship” is between those who believe common sense (reality) is going to catch up with us, and those that don’t care because they’re too attached to idylic vision (fantasy), greed, or both. If it makes me a “terrrorist” to say that spending money we don’t have is the path to handing a miserable existence to our children, then so be it. I remain partisan to promoting fiscal reality instead of idiocy.

    If we can agree our government spends too much but can’t agree where to cut, let’s start with across the board. We should have more taxes? With around half of America not paying federal income tax, I say that has to be done across the board as well. These actions should fit in nicely with the current preoccupation with benefits for everybody, regardless of productivity, citizenship, or our ability to fund them.

    It’s incredibly unfortunate that our years of affluence and lethargy have led us to believing civic vigilance is some unneeded quaint notion, or can be done by somebody else. It’s unfortunate that “compromise” is now a dirty word, but dirty it is if requiring compliance to leap off a roof and flap our arms, assured that we will fly like a bird. When compromise has been the path to dysfunctionality, what remains so virtuous about it?

    I’m all for “responsible” leadship espoused. I suggest it has a better shot at success based on reality.

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