The roots of hyper-partisanship in Washington

By Jason Roche

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the past, congressional representatives used to spend nearly all of their time in Washington D.C. because it was simply too time consuming or costly to regularly return to their districts. They would have meals together, participate in leisure activities and discuss the issues of the day.

Last summer, I interned in the House of Representatives office building, and representatives from both parties agreed that members simply do not spend as much time together as past Congresses had.

In recent years, Congress has been almost entirely incapable of reaching agreements on the most pressing issues facing the country. While both parties like to blame the other, the root problems of today’s hyper-partisanship may be the party system itself, political financing and media fragmentation.

It is difficult to come to an agreement when there is no discussion of the matter at hand. Private bipartisan meetings are a rare occurrence. The only time that representatives from opposing parties debate the issues is usually in front of a camera, where they are trying to get in their selected soundbyte for their loyal supporters back home. There is little room for substantive conversation, and the result is unwavering hardline positions.

The current party system also contributes to partisanship. Both parties use primaries to select candidates during the electoral process. Generally, voters who take part in primaries tend to be more ideological than the overall electorate, and thus pick more extreme candidates than would be favored by the average voter. Without primaries, all Democrats and all Republicans would compete against each other, and the electorate would likely choose a candidate somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. With primaries, only one candidate from each party is chosen for the general electorate to consider, and they are picked mainly by voters within their party. This generally leads to a more partisan Democrat and a more partisan Republican for voters to pick between.

In addition to the primary process used by both parties, the gerrymandering of districts also contributes to the hyper-partisanship in Washington. Gerrymandering refers to the drawing of congressional districts by parties to make a particular seat easy for candidates to win. The party in control of the state legislature will draw districts so that the demographic within the region contains a majority of voters from their party, thus essentially guaranteeing that their party will control that seat. When a representative only has to appeal to voters from their own party, there is little incentive to compromise with the other side.

The electoral system seems to intrinsically promote partisanship, but all of the blame cannot be placed upon the political process. Americans are becoming more partisan themselves, and it follows in a democracy that representatives should change with the electorate. There may be many reasons for the public’s increased partisanship, but one of the prevailing theories is the nature of modern news. The vast number of news outlets that are at the public’s fingertips allows individuals to selectively choose which articles they would like to read. People are never forced to consider a viewpoint with which they disagree because they can effortlessly switch the source and find an opinion that supports their own.

As with most problems, a lot can be learned from following the money. Congressional representatives run for reelection every two years, and it takes a lot of money to run a successful campaign. This means that representatives have to be constantly fundraising while in office, and the only way to get somebody to donate money to you is to promise them something in return. This is where lobbyists come in; they donate money and resources to representatives in order to influence how candidates will vote on certain issues. Lobbyists have significant influence on legislation and can increase partisanship because members will be reluctant to vote in a way that will lose their campaign financing.

There are many potential explanations for the growing partisanship that our government has experienced over the course of the last two decades. If Americans want a more cohesive government, then they must consider all of these factors and actively use their political clout to demand greater bipartisanship. As the recent government shutdown displayed, the hyper-partisanship in Washington can create significant problems for the entire country. It is easy to say that Congress has to start working together, but it is more difficult to elect members that are actually willing to do so.

Jason Roche is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]