democracy is a work in progress

Potential Obstacles

Hyper Partisanship

In a segment of On The Media, a podcast from WNYC, political psychologist Lilliana Mason recounts the shift over the last 70 years from a time in the 1950s when political scientists believed the two major parties were too similar to the hyper-partisan tribalism that we see today. She describes in particular one concerning development regarding today’s partisanship: That a party’s followers will continue to follow along even when the party suddenly flips its long-held position on an issue. Mason cites as an example the Republican Party’s sudden flip on trade without disrupting its base of support, a development, she says, that has led to a situation in which party leaders are no longer being held accountable.

What distinguishes a hyper-partisan environment is the all-out desire to win for the party regardless of what might be best for their constituents. In this regard, Republicans have practiced a no-compromise approach to governing, repeatedly denying the science of climate change and avoiding unwelcome policy discussions, vigorously opposing Obamacare (which was modeled on the market-driven solution implemented in Massachusetts by Republican Governor Mitt Romney), and shutting down the government during budget negotiations. All because the party refuses to cede any victories to its opposition, whether or not it is good for Americans and the nation.

Over the last decade, Republican leaders have not tried to hide their strategy. It was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s public commitment to make Obama “a one-term president.” And John Boehner promised prior to the 2010 election that, if Republicans reclaimed control of the House of Representatives, they would “do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill [Obama’s policy agenda], stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

The American people noticed. A Fox News poll in September 2018 revealed that most Americans believe by a wide margin that the Republican Party puts its own interests ahead of the best interests of the country.

Republicans Chose Party Over Country

With regard to voting rights, while both parties engage in gerrymandering and closed primaries and caucuses that erode the integrity of our elections, the GOP has been most notorious in advancing restrictive measures that affect primarily communities of color and in making false claims of widespread voter fraud and rigged elections. It has been Republicans in Congress who have actively sought to undermine the work of the bipartisan Election Assistance Commission and to restrict funding needed to address voting security and our vulnerability to foreign interference. Republican leadership has done these things despite knowledge of Russian interference in 2016 and the likelihood of ongoing interference from agents in Russia, China, and other nations.

At the very least, today’s GOP does not make voting rights among people of color their priority, choosing instead to focus on a statistically insignificant level of voter fraud to justify voter ID laws and voter purges that have the potential to impact the most fundamental right of a substantial number of our citizens. At worst, the party has strategically undermined those rights, cynically promoting efforts in state after state to restrict and exclude people who tend to vote against their party.

Continued Disengagement Among Eligible Voters

The vast majority of Americans believe the political system is rigged in favor of the super-rich and organizations representing corporate interests. In 2019, according to an annual Gallup poll, only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress. There is a good reason why Americans responded as they did.

A Princeton University study looked at 1800 public opinion polls over a 20-year period and found that no matter how much public support there is for a piece of legislation, there is only a 30% chance that the legislation will be passed. Whether support was 100%, 0%, or somewhere in between, it simply did not matter.  The authors of the study concluded, “The preferences of the average American have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically insignificant impact on public policy.”

Once lost from the system, it is very difficult to re-engage those who have stopped voting and paying attention to politics, especially the growing numbers who believe the system does not work for them. In this context, “use it or lose it” takes on more dire, and possibly more permanent, meaning, as it is only through the vote that Americans can legitimately reclaim their voice in how we are governed.

Related Problems: Money in Politics, Income and Wealth Inequality

Contributors: George LinzerMichael Deal, Kyle Mullins

Reviewed by: Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress

Published: December 5, 2019

Last Updated: June 16, 2021

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