Has Polarization Broken Partisanship?


By Justin Kempf

Partisan Conflicts

The never-ending votes for House Speaker have challenged common assumptions about American politics. Unlike the multi-party legislatures in other democracies, the American political system features two dominant political parties. This means leadership contests are almost always routine. Behind the scenes they might involve fierce conflicts, but those get resolved before any official vote on the House floor takes place. However, this time those conflicts did not get resolved. Instead, about twenty Republican Congressional Representatives have openly revolted against their party and its leadership.

In recent years, both parties have suffered from conflict within their ranks. Democrats struggled to pass key legislation for months because moderate Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema opposed important aspects. Meanwhile, progressives held up a bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House for months to force the Senate to pass a social spending bill. Still, Democrats overcame those challenges to make a number of legislative accomplishments despite those internal conflicts.

Republicans, on the other hand, struggle to pass legislation that past generations of legislators considered routine. For instance, many Republicans refuse to increase the debt ceiling under any reasonable circumstances even though a failure to increase it would result in a default on the federal debt with devastating economic consequences. Inevitably, Republican leaders often turn to Democrats to support routine legislation. Even Donald Trump turned to Democrats to avoid a government shutdown, because he did not have enough support among Republicans to pass a basic spending bill that included disaster relief for hurricane victims. Those same divisions have resurfaced in the votes for the House Speaker.

Polarization and Partisanship

At the same time, polarization has reinforced partisan identities. The public may still not like political parties, but most Americans identify more with one party than the other. Moreover, the divide is more or less evenly split, so neither side wants to concede even after elections. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, many Democrats embraced the notion of a resistance. It had revolutionary undertones of a movement within a totalitarian society. However, the resistance was always more of a metaphor. Many Republicans, on the other hand,  outright denied the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and some even rebelled in the Capitol on January 6th.

Sides, Vavreck, and Tausanovitch argue American politics has moved beyond polarization into what they call calcification. People have hardened their views, so there is little room for compromise. For some political adversaries have even transformed into enemies. Still, this political trend should continue to reinforce partisanship. It should allow for greater partisan cohesion even as it makes cooperation between the parties less likely. However, this is not what has happened. The Republican Party is visibly split between a Trumpian MAGA faction and a more traditional or RINO (Republicans in Name Only) wing.

In the past the far right flexed their political muscle to win concessions from the political leadership. But this leadership vote feels different. There is a genuine animosity against Kevin McCarthy. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert say they will never vote for him. Bob Good told a reporter, “You don’t ever have to ask me again if I’m a no. I will never vote for Kevin McCarthy.” It’s not clear how deep this opposition is or whether it translates to other members of the House leadership. Still, it represents a clear break for those representatives from Republican leadership.

Beyond Partisanship

The rebellion in the House challenges common assumptions about partisanship. The representatives sense how polarization has moved them beyond the traditional partisan framework. It allows them to challenge their party openly with a reckless abandon. In this manner they represent something almost post-partisan. It’s hard to understand them in any other way. It’s easy to refer to them as MAGA Republicans, but this description overlooks how other MAGA Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan continue to support McCarthy. In other words, the conflict is not solely ideological. It also requires an abatement in partisan affection.

Lee Drutman has described the post-war era as an unofficial three party system. Southern Democrats represented a distinct political faction with its own interests. They formally identified as Democrats, but frequently allied with Republicans on important issues. In this manner, the American Congress was more like a coalition government based on delicate compromises.

The defection of twenty Republicans in the Speaker’s vote is the latest indication of a shift in partisan sentiments. Indeed, it’s not limited to the Republican Party either. Last month Kyrsten Sinema changed her partisan registration to become independent. At the same time, many accused Sinema of political machinations. In the same way many will view the Republican holdouts as political opportunists who have used the slim majority for personal prestige and better committee assignments.

What’s Next

The most likely political outcome remains a compromise among Republicans. However, it’s become more and more likely part of the compromise will involve a new candidate for Speaker. Still, it’s also possible a compromise candidate among Republicans does not exist. Additional compromises might lose the support of moderate Republicans especially if those compromises cost them committee assignments or chairmanships. In this scenario it’s possible some Republicans will reach out to Democrats to form a unity government. This outcome was unthinkable just a few days ago, but feels more and more like a real possibility.

Still, my focus is not on the short-term outcome of the election for the House Speaker. Obviously, the terms of the agreement will have consequences for governance over the next two years. However, the break within the Republican Party may represent an even larger generational shift. Polarization has become so intense, it may finally have broken partisanship. In the past partisanship kept the two poles unified. But the incentives to move further and further away from the center have finally snapped the cohesion of traditional partisan politics. Political polarization has somehow transcended partisanship. It’s possible we have entered an entirely new era where polarization trumps partisanship.

About the Author

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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