Living With Political Polarization

Peter Orszag polital polarizationPeter Orszag’s Bloomberg View article about political polarization is more true now than ever.  In the article, Orszag points out data illustrating the increasing polarization of politics between the Democrats and Republicans.  Two years later, the polarization has only increased, and the gridlock predicted by Orszag still finds us mired by inaction.

In the 60s, there still existed a vote overlap between our two political parties.  There were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, and there were voting histories to prove it.  Over the decades, this overlap disappeared, and now many votes and opinions in the federal government are strictly based on party lines.

For some time much of the blame for this has been assigned to gerrymandering.  Concurrently with this political shift, legislators were redrawing congressional districts within states to create high concentrations of one party.  Consequently, members of congress find it easier to be elected, no longer competing with viable candidates from the other party.  The thought is that in seeking to appeal to a district of all one party, the politics have shifted further in each direction while also making cross-party voting a kind of political suicide.

Where this theory of gerrymandering causing our political polarization falls apart is when we look at the Senate.  Although the Senate districts haven’t been redrawn because they are simply state borders, polarization is just as evident.

There are a lot of theories as to what is really causing political polarization, and there are probably a number of factors.  One likely factor is the voluntary separation that happens in modern America.  One one side, we are able to filter our news and online experience to match our own points of view, making it less likely that we’ll hear reasonable arguments against them.  We are also physically separating ourselves by political party, choosing our neighborhoods by the people who  live there.  Gerrymandering aside, there are fewer ‘middle’ neighborhoods than ever.

Instead of allowing this polarization to result in political gridlock, devoid of progress or even tending to basic functions of the government, Orszag points out that there are ways to use the inertia to our benefit.  There is a precedent in the private sector, such as automatic-enrollment 401k plans.  This is the reason we’ve seen over the past few years a few examples of this positive use of inertia.  The Independent Payment Advisory Board proposed ways to constrain cost and improve quality in medicare.  Without legislation by Congress, the board’s recommendations take effect.

from Economist Peter Orszag


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