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George Packer Explains why the Senate is Broken

There are a few political scientists who question whether the American people have become more polarized in the last ten years. (They have.) But there is no doubt that our political institutions and elites have become more polarized and uncivil in the last 2-3 decades. George Packer recently painted a grim but insightful portrait of the US Senate in a New Yorker essay, The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate? In the rest of this blog post, I’ll draw out the lessons for civil politics contained in this extraordinary essay. Packer emphasizes many of the themes we have been discussing at, particularly the importance of personal relationships as a precursor for civil interaction, as well as the generational and macro-level trends that have made a decline of civility almost inevitable as the “greatest generation” gave way to the baby boom generation.

Packer begins the essay by discussing the arcane and absurd rules of the Senate, which make it easy for any single senator to obstruct the rest of the chamber. For example, many rules of the senate require unanimous consent. Other rules allow any senator to place a “secret hold” on any appointee that the senate is asked to vote on. That is, any one senator can object, in secret, to a presidential appointee, which prevents that appointee from ever coming up for a vote. In 2007 the rules were changed so that such holds can last only 6 days, but now any pair of senators can just alternate placing 6 day secret holds and achieve the same purpose, without risking condemnation from the press or the people because their names are kept secret. As Packer says:

Like investment bankers on Wall Street, senators these days direct much of their creative energy toward the manipulation of arcane rules and loopholes, scoring short-term successes while magnifying their institution’s broader dysfunction.

Packer notes that the Senate used to engage in deliberation, debate, and argument. Its civility and thoughtfulness had impressed Alexis de Tocqueville. Those days are long gone:

The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat…  Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “

Packer describes many factors that have led to the dysfunctional, petty, and nasty institution that the Senate is today. After describing the superb talent and bipartisan cooperation of senators in the 1960s and 1970s, Packer says:

The Senate’s modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. “The Quayle generation came in, and there were a number of people just like Dan—same generation, same hair style, same beliefs,” Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, recalled. “They were harder-line. They weren’t there to get along with Democrats. But they look accommodationist compared to Republicans in the Senate today.”

In addition…

Both [Republican Lamar] Alexander and [Republican Judd] Gregg said that the Senate had been further polarized by the rising number of senators—now nearly fifty—who come from the House, rather than from governorships or other positions where bipartisan coöperation is still permissible. “A lot of senators don’t understand the history or tradition of the institution,” Gregg said. “Substantive, thoughtful, moderate discussion is pushed aside.”

A further cause is the extraordinary time pressure of modern political life, which makes it even harder to meet members of the other party socially:

Encumbered with aides, prodded by hourly jolts from electronic media, racing from the hearing room to the caucus lunch to the Power Hour to the airport, senators no longer have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to get to know one another—least of all, members of the other party. Friendships across party lines are more likely among the few spouses who live in Washington. After Udall joined the Senate, last year, he was invited to dinner by Alexander, because Jill Cooper Udall and Honey Alexander had become friends through a women’s social club. It remains the only time Udall has set foot in the house of a Republican senator. (Vice-President Joe Biden, in his autobiography, recalls that, in the seventies, a bipartisan group of senators and their wives hosted a monthly dinner: “In those days Democrats and Republicans actually enjoyed each other’s company.”)

Illustrating the extraordinary difficulty of civil politics, reforms that you might think of as advances sometimes made things worse:

After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing. “So Damn Much Money,” a recent book by the Washington Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser, traces the spectacular rise of Washington lobbying to the same period. Liberal Republicans began to disappear, and as Southern Democrats died out they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Bipartisan coalitions on both wings of the Senate vanished. The institutionalist gave way to the free agent, who controlled his own fund-raising apparatus and media presence, and whose electoral base was a patchwork of single-issue groups. Members of both parties—Howard Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat; Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican—took to regularly using the Senate’s rules to tie up business for narrowly ideological reasons. … The weakened institution could no longer withstand pressures from outside its walls; as money and cameras rushed in, independent minds fell more and more in line with the partisans…. Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the Senate has increasingly become populated by “ideologues and charlatans.”

It should be noted, of course, that whether you think efficiency is a virtue depends on whether you’re in the majority:

None of the Republicans I spoke to agreed with the contention that the Senate is “broken.” Alexander claimed that he and other Republicans were exercising the moderating, thoughtful influence on legislation that the founders wanted in the Senate.

Our view at CivilPolitics, however, is that the Senate is broken. It cannot serve the interests of the nation to give every single senator the ability to derail legislation, which gives every single senator the ability to ask for special benefits in exchange for letting go of the brake. It also cannot serve the interests of the nation for the Senate to have essentially ceased to deliberate, and to have degenerated into a simple power struggle between two teams. We suspect that there are some simple rule changes that could improve the functioning of the senate, in addition to the changes to primaries and general elections that we discuss elsewhere on this site.

Jon Haidt

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Is Politics Hopelessly Partisan?: Perceptions of “The Other Side”

How do Democrats and Republicans view their political opponents?  Ken Berwitz and Barry Sinrod investigate this question in The Hopelessly Partisan Guide to American Politics:  An Irreverent Look at the Private Lives of Republicans and Democrats, a lighthearted publication examining Democrat and Republicans’ answers to surveys discussing everything from their favorite type of movies to whether they organize the bills in their wallet.  The survey reflected that people generally believe the differences between Democrats and Republicans extend beyond their political opinions (for example, most agree that Democrats are more likely to go out on the town on the weekend, and Republicans are more likely to stay in).  In fact, previous psychology research has indicated that meaningful and stable disparities in personality do exist across party lines.  Conservatives, for instance, tend to score higher on the “conscientiousness” factor of the “Big Five” personality traits (items concerned with self-discipline, organization, and planning), and liberals tend to score higher on “openness to experience” (items indicating an interest in art, emotion, curiosity, and imagination).

             A More “Liberal” Room                                            A More “Conservative” Room
These differences have been explored in research by psychologists Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008), who examined the offices and bedrooms of liberals and conservatives for cues to their personality, and found that liberals were indeed more likely to have items in their room indicating an interest in novel experiences and creativity (e.g., books about travel and music, art supplies, international maps), and conservatives items indicating organization and cleanliness (e.g., calendars, laundry baskets, ironing boards).  Liberals and conservatives seem to be correct in recognizing that their political counterparts have distinct interests and personality traits.  While these perceived differences are relatively innocuous, liberals and conservatives frequently see members of "the other side" as dissimilar in a very negative light.  TheHopelessly Partisan survey takes a more somber turn when the authors asked respondents to describe the characteristics of members of the opposite party.  The findings, while perhaps not surprising, shed light on challenges to positive bipartisan interaction.
First and foremost, we see that people are rather unwilling to accept their political opponents as well-meaning individuals with cogent beliefs.  Out of all of the insults hurled at members of the opposite political party (for instance, Republican “warmongers” and Democratic “freeloaders”), one of the most frequent epithets was “liar.”  Dishonesty was heavily attributed to those who disagreed with one's political opinions. Opponents were continually ranked as having suspect motives – for example, they were more likely to be suspected of taking bribes or accepting money from lobbyists.

In these examples, we see further evidence of the “mirror image perception” phenomenon, in which opposing ideologues have nearly identical stereotypes of one another.  Corrupt motives are attributed to the side that opposes us; our ideological peers are seen as upright and virtuous.
 Why are we so inclined to distrust our political opponents?  Individuals are highly motivated to defend important, self-related beliefs.  Previous research on the “belief bias” has illustrated the conflict between logic and belief in deductive reasoning: individuals tend to reject arguments that are logical, but with which they disagree, and accept arguments that, albeit flawed, are consonant with their personal beliefs.  Through rationalization, people then justify overlooking potentially logical arguments that don’t match one’s own ideas.  Furthermore, a source credibility bias can influence our decision making.  While we are readily willing to accept an opinion asserted by someone we like and admire, we refute those issued by people or groups we dislike.  We can, perhaps, readily justify ignoring an argument by attending instead to the character of the person delivering it.  By viewing those who contradict us as unreliable sources, we quell any chance of having to seriously consider their arguments.  Discrediting the proponent of undesirable viewpoints could be accomplished quite easily by asserting that the person is deceptive – thus the frequency of “liar” in heated political discourse.
Research on motivated reasoning reveals just how adept people are at dismantling undesirable beliefs as irrational and unreasonable.  When information is pertinent to our personal life, it becomes difficult to view it objectively.  For example, women who were heavy caffeine drinkers were less likely to be convinced by an article linking caffeine consumption and breast cancer than low caffeine drinkers; in another study, researchers found that these “threatened” individuals described studies showing the dangers of caffeine as less methodologically sound.  So, when a highly religious individual encounters statements from someone such as Richard Dawkins, they might be tempted to react violently to invalidate his arugments, dubbing him “two faced,” “fork-tongued,” and a “spineless hypocrite.”
Furthermore, people seek out evidence that confirms what they want to believe rather than rationally assessing all of the available information.  When told that extraversion was an especially desirable trait, people generated more memories of instances in their lives where they were extroverted; when told that introversion is preferable, the effect flipped, demonstrating a clear confirmation bias in individuals’ thought processes.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses how this occurs:  When evaluating a statement congruent with our beliefs, we ask ourselves, “Can we believe it?” and require only a minimal amount of plausibility before we accept the argument as valid.  On the other hand, when encountering an assertion that challenges our beliefs, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” and need devise only a single crack in its foundation in order to cast it aside.  For example,  a person inclined to dislike Obama hears that people have had trouble tracking down his birth certificate.  They ask, can I believe that Obama is not a natural born citizen?, and see the alleged missing birth certificate as sufficient evidence.  On the other hand, when the birth certificate is posted online, potentially refuting these arguments, the person asks, must I believe it?, and instead labels the birth certificate a forgery, as a "short-form" and invalid certificate, and so on.  People tend to search for information that supports important, self-referential beliefs, disregarding information that contradicts them.  And in the information age, the Internet is ready to provide dozens of “sources” that can offer evidence for any number of theories, from those insisting that planted bombs caused 9/11 to those claiming Obama is the Anti-Christ.
Fortunately, research has indicated that motivated reasoning has its limits.  When presented with conflicting information about a candidate in a mock presidential primary that they originally supported (e.g., a pro-choice individual discovered that the candidate was pro-life), people initially responded along the lines of motivated reasoning, increasing their positive attitude towards the candidate and ignoring the contradictory information.  On the other hand, as the amount of incongruent information learned grew, people began making adjustments to their evaluations of the candidates, appraising the situation more accurately and taking more time to review the information they were given.  Although people are initially predisposed to excuse their politician of choice's faults, they don't appear able to gloss over everything.  See, for example, this quote from a once-ardent Obama supporter: "Now after over 6 months in power, after the novelty has worn off, after months of 'Yes We Can!' should have become 'Yes Let's Do It!', we all realize that the person that we supported is really a centrist who plays a Progressive on TV."  People can reevaluate and re-frame their beliefs.
However, as illustrated in The Hopelessly Partisan Guide,aspersions about “the other side” reached far beyond a political context.  Democrats and Republicans were willing to attribute all sorts of vices to the others and, in turn, claimed the moral high ground for themselves.  For example, Democrats and Republicans asserted that they drink less, enjoy gambling less, and are more tolerant of minorities (Democrats demonstrated an especially marked bias in this case) than their counterparts. In a reverse halo-like effect, partisans attributed all kinds of immoral characteristics beyond mendacity to their opponents.

With this thorough “de-moralification” of our political opponents, it’s not surprising that politicos can hurl such insults at one another, and, in an extreme case, profess not to care if their opponent died in front of them. 95.4% of Americans recently polled asserted that civility is important for a healthy democracy – and many aver that problems of incivility might be solved by cross-party interaction.  For example, 85% of Americans surveyed believe that politicians should work to cultivate friendships with members of the opposite party.  
However, it seems some are disinclined to freely associate with political others – Hopelessly Partisan data indicated that people tend to think political kin make better friends. 

Psychological research has long validated the notion that “birds of a feather flock together” – rather than opposites attracting, people like those who are attitudinally similar to themselves, and even deem them more moral individuals.  Since people might be less inclined to form bipartisan friendships on their own, some assert that the workplace might actually be the best place for cross-cutting political discourse.  Self-selection has begun to occur in neighborhoods, churches, and community organizations, as people group themselves with people who are ideologically similar; however, this self-selection generally cannot occur at work.  Political scientists Mutz and Mondak (2006) found that dialogue between ideological opponents increased at work, resulted in a greater awareness of rationales for viewpoints other than one’s own, and that there was an association between political tolerance and the number of political discussion partners one had at work.  Perhaps, then, public places like the workplace and schools could be used to foster civil interaction.  Many Americans echoed this sentiment in a recent survey, with 77% stating that schools should teach respect in politics, and selecting local schools as the best way to promote civil politics.

Is politics hopelessly partisan? Sometimes it might seem so, when even the most well-educated and intellectual individuals instantly label members of the opposite political party as insane and idiotic.  However, considering that motivated reasoning doesn't appear to persist in the face of everything, there is hope that judgments of our ideological opponents could also be corrected.  Most of the research on reduction of bias and prejudice has focused on race and sexual orientation, but perhaps some of the same techniques could be implemented to assuage cross-party polemics.  Given enough examples of well-meaning and reasonable individuals with whom one disagrees, one might be able to view "the other side" with less hostility. 

Author Info 

Conservative Ken Berwitz is a native New Yorker and the President of Ken Berwitz Marketing Research (KBMR) and National Qualitative Centers, Inc. (NQC).  He has been involved in executing, writing, and speaking about qualitative and quantitative research for over 35 years.  Liberal Barry Sinrod has conducted surveys in the marketing and research community for nearly 40 years and writes for the Boca Raton News on a weekly basis.

– Lauren Howe

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How did Liberals become Democrats and Conservatives Become Republicans? Levendusky Explains in “The Partisan Sort”


Book Review

For much of America’s history, political parties consisted of liberal and conservative elected officials and voters. In the 1970s, however, this ideological heterogeneity began a marked shift where liberals sorted into the Democratic party and conservatives sorted into the Republican party. Matthew Levendusky presents data in The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and Conservatives Became Republicans suggesting that this began following the decentralization of the primary election process—that is, taking the nomination process out of the hands of party bosses and letting the passionate, activists and extremists within each party vote for their preferred candidate. This change in the nomination process led to the parties running increasingly extreme candidates in general elections. Thus, as the elite became more polarized, voters became better able to distinguish between the parties and were able to better sort themselves according to their beliefs. Levendusky argues that this tendency is both good and bad, as it makes voters better informed, but can invite close-mindedness and hostility on contentious issues.

Application to Civil Politics

We at CivilPolitics agree that having engaged and informed voters is good for democracy, but see many potential negatives to having people divided into groups and sorted in such a way that sacred values enflame the competition between the groups. For instance, as people sort themselves into segregated groups, they begin to surround themselves with people with similar political beliefs as them. In doing so, we activate “group polarization” where the disagreement between the groups becomes even wider as members of each group become more extreme. Social psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper (1979) found that this polarization leads people on both sides of an issue to engage in the confirmation bias, accepting evidence in support of one’s belief at face value, while applying strict scrutiny to any evidence in opposition to one’s belief. In their experiments, they looked at groups of people who favored and opposed the death penalty. Consistent with this attitude polarization hypothesis, they found that supporters of capital punishment found evidence in support of the death penalty more convincing than evidence in opposition to it. The reverse pattern was true for opponents of capital punishment; opponents of capital punishment found arguments against the death penalty as more convincing than evidence in favor of it. Sorting may also lead to less contact with people who belong to different political parties. Less contact may prevent the development of relationships and respect for people with these discrepant views. Classic social psychological research shows us that without positive intergroup contact, group relations may become increasingly hostile. The lack of contact can be illustrated by the recurring statement, “I don’t know how Reagan[/Clinton/Bush/Obama] won – I don’t know a soul who voted for him.” This research finding makes sense in light of the disrespectful vitriol being spewed at Republicans by Democrats and at Democrats by Republicans. It’s easier to label something as evil if you are not friends with him/her. Muzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave research, in addition to decades of confirming experiments, suggest that even though groups can get pretty nasty with each other in competitive contexts, there are ways besides developing personal relationships that may civilize these interactions. For instance, if there is some greater goal that allows the groups to cooperate, the intergroup friction is temporarily reduced. Perhaps if politicians in America recognized the importance of civil debate in a healthy democracy, they might be more inclined to cooperate… or at least less likely to call each other names.

Detailed Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: The Transformation of the American Electorate

In the mid-twentieth century, Democratic and Republican officials were much more ideologically heterogeneous than they are today. By the 2000s, “Rockefeller Republicans” and conservative southern Democrats had vanished from public office. In this time span, these political elites became more polarized with Democrats shifting to the left and Republicans shifting to the right. This polarization of the elites makes distinguishing between the parties easier for voters to determine which party best represents their beliefs. In other words, as the elites polarized, it became easier for the ordinary citizens to sort into the two major parties.

Chapter 2: Why Voters Sort

During the 1950s and 1960s, candidates from both parties generally accepted the New Deal government established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, when Barry Goldwater received the Republican Party’s nomination to run for president, this consensus on the New Deal began to falter. Goldwater advocated privatizing social security, selling the Tennessee Valley Authority, strengthening right-to-work legislation, and perhaps most importantly, emphasizing the States’, and not the Federal government’s, responsibility to address racism. This helped create a schism between the parties over the question of race. Later, in the 1970s, both parties began to reform their nomination process by reducing the power of the party bosses and increasing power of the primary election voters—the people who tend to be the most passionate and extreme in their beliefs. This reform forces candidates to stake out increasingly extreme positions on issues to gain the support of the primary voters who are more likely to reject more moderate candidates than are the general election voters.

Chapter 3: Have Voters Sorted?

Levendusky presents data supporting his basic argument that voters have become more sorted than they have been at any point in history. When comparing the percentage of Americans who reported having liberal or conservative beliefs and identifying as Democrats or Republicans, respectively, we a marked increase from 28% in1972 to 46% in 2004. This number may be artificially low because it does not take into account the people who cannot identify themselves on the liberal-to-conservative continuum. In addition to sorting, there is some evidence suggesting voters have also become more polarized. This finding is not due to an increasing number of people identifying as extreme liberals or extreme conservatives. Rather, this finding is due to moderate voters starting to lean slightly toward liberalism or conservatism.

Chapters 4 and 5: Testing Competing Explanations for Sorting and Untangling the Causes of Sorting

In these chapters, Levendusky first provides correlational data demonstrating that increased elite polarization corresponds to increased mass sorting. However, as all good statistics students know, correlation does not mean causation. Thus, in order to argue that increased polarization is the factor causing increased mass sorting, he must demonstrate the correlation while controlling for the temporal sequence of the variables and other variables that could be causing the sorting. In these chapters, he does this supporting his hypothesis that changes in elite polarization predict changes in mass sorting. This relationship holds even after controlling for alternative explanations (e.g., the changing “Southern Democrat,” birth cohort variation, race, gender, and income).

Chapter 6: How Voters Sort

Partisan identification is a source of a more general identity that biases people’s interpretation of the world to fit with their partisan worldview. In other words, political parties provide people with a heuristic to understand their political worlds allowing them to sort according to their party’s stances on the issues. This is especially true for issues which voters have not invested much time into developing a particular opinion. So, if the Republican Party supports X and I am a Republican, I am significantly more likely to align my view with the Republican view. This partisan identity is remarkably stable across time. While this pattern may be the most common, occasionally, voters will shift their partisan identification to fit with their positions on the issues. As one example, Levendusky points to the conservative Democrats who became Republicans after the Democratic Party shifted left in the 1970s.

Chapter 7: The Impact of the Sorted

As sorting increases, we see that partisans on both ends of the spectrum become more emotionally polarized leading to a widespread belief that my party consists of the “good guys” and the other party is the “bad guys,” regardless of which party I belong to. This affective polarization is problematic because it may make it more difficult for legislators in one party to discuss and compromise on issues with legislators in another party. This observation may have played a part in the changing campaign philosophies over time. For many years political candidates adopted the “Downsian” model of campaigning where they believed that targeting the moderate, centrist voters would tip the electoral scale their way. Until the 1990s, campaigns spent proportionally more money targeting these “swing” voters than any other group. However, beginning in the 1990s and exponentially increasing through George Bush’s two elections (and in the 2008 Obama-McCain election, but this was not covered by Levendusky), Huntington’s “base-mobilization” campaign strategy became the focus. In this strategy, each candidate focuses on making sure their loyal supporters within their own party turn out to the polls and cast their ballot, paying little attention to the swing voters and people who typically vote for the other party.

Author Info

Matthew Levendusky obtained his doctorate in political science from Stanford University in 2006, did postdoctoral work at the Center for the Study of American Politics at Yale, and is now a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies how political institutions affect political behavior of citizens. The Partisan Sort is his first published book. His peer-reviewed research is published in some of the top journals in the field of political science including the Journal of Politics and Political Analysis.

— Matt Motyl

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.