The media has fragmented from relatively few outlets to a plethora of voices, particularly on the Internet. How will increasingly customized appeals to voters exacerbate the ability of elected officials to compromise on legislation?
Can’t we all just get along? Unlikely. Gridlock and political dysfunction in Congress is at an all-time high. It hasn’t always been this way, at least not on this scale, and political scientists have been studying why it’s become so bad.
It’s not that we haven’t been polarized in the past. During the battle over civil rights, elected officials lived and voted their different realities with lawmakers from the South pitted against those from the North.
We have always had partisan battles. But the profound partisan disagreements were usually on one or two contentious issues of the time, not on every issue across the board as it is today.
There was a time, for example, when U.S. senators were expected to extend the courtesy of approving a president’s judicial nominees if they were qualified. Not anymore.
Former Sen. Richard Lugar found this out the hard way. In the 2012 Republican primary with Richard Mourdock for U.S. Senate, Tea Party activists cited Lugar’s votes for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor as proof positive that he wasn’t a true conservative.
So why has everything become a partisan battlefield? Many would say, just turn on cable television and you have your answer: the proliferation of outrage outlets. Before cable television and well before the Internet, most Americans were served by the Big Three: ABC, NBC and CBS which, by today’s standards, offered a straight-up delivery of the news.
Today, with mass fragmentation, each news outlet needs a niche and a loyal audience to generate advertising revenue. What better way than to serve up a daily case of outrage? As a listener with bespoke news options, you don’t have to listen to anything you might disagree with.
Conservatives have Fox and Drudge. Liberals have MSNBC and Daily Kos.
Consuming news that is removed from objective reality must be the cause of all this partisan gridlock … except that political scientists say, not so fast. They point to the fact that polarization started to tick up in the late 1970s—two decades before Fox News and MSNBC arrived on the scene.
More important, the number of Americans who view or listen to partisan political news is slim; most voters aren’t tuning in to any of it. So, the outrage outlets affect few—but they are an increasingly vocal and important few. Members of Congress hear mostly from these hyper-partisans who then have an outsized effect in shaping the congressperson’s world view.
Members of Congress, however, don’t answer equally to all partisans; they are increasingly responsive only to those on their side. In a 2012 analysis of congressional districts, Nate Silver argues that the number of competitive districts has declined in the last 20 years and that many more districts are now largely decided in primaries.
If your political survival depends on winning a primary, your incentive to compromise with the other party is virtually non-existent. Instead, grandstanding about your refusal to compromise wins points with party activists and staves off a primary challenge.
While voters in national polls say they want parties to work together, the reality of an individual member of Congress doesn’t reflect that.•
Matthews is president of Bellwether Research, a Republican public opinion research firm based in Alexandria, Va., that works with Indiana clients. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.