Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Posts Tagged book summary

Going to Extremes: Sunstein’s Take On How Like Minds Unite and Divide


In Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Cass Sunstein reviews the social scientific research documenting how people polarize and become increasingly extreme in their views. The process of polarization is often triggered when people are in groups of like-minded others and have little exposure to alternative views. When these groups are isolated from mainstream society and feel marginalized, they tend to share grievances, leading to further radicalization. It is when these conditions are met that polarization can take a dangerous, sometimes lethal, turn. Sunstein argues that one way to reduce this most extreme, dangerous form of polarization is by providing a “safe space” where people feel comfortable discussing their views that is not insulated from divergent perspectives.

Application to Civil Politics
Sunstein’s book explains that extremism and polarization are natural human phenomena to be expected under certain circumstances. In Going to Extremes, he points to a shortcoming of the “deliberative democracy” movement which brings group of diverse citizens together to discuss issues. Some researchers have shown that this strategy of forcing cross-cutting political communications may activate a “tribal” mindset where people are motivated to use their reasoning abilities to support their beliefs and pick apart alternative beliefs. Hugo Mercier and Helene Landemore (2010) suggest that “reasoning is for arguing” and that when people engage in public deliberations, they are particularly likely to exhibit a strong confirmation bias.
Segregation is an important prerequisite for polarization. Bill Bishop’s research (see Lauren Howe’s excellent review here) documents that liberals are tending to live in liberal communities and conservatives are tending to live in conservative communities. With this domestic political migration into ideologically-homogeneous communities, it is no surprise that politically-active Americans are rather polarized today (or, perceive that they are more polarized today; see Fiorina & Abrams, 2009).

Detailed Chapter Summaries
Chapter 1: Polarization

Generally, when people find themselves in groups of like-minded others, they tend to become more extreme in the views which they share with those around them. Simple laboratory experiments have shown that people arbitrarily assigned to sit with people they think share their views exhibit this polarization effect, where they become more extreme in their views on whatever it is that researchers tell them they share in common. When this occurs in the real-world and the point of division is of the sacred moral values variety, polarization is even more profound and may carry with it many negative consequences for the functioning of the disagreeing groups. This shift towards extremity may be accentuated when there are authorities reaffirming people’s beliefs and confirming their biases.
Intuition leads many people to think that groups may become less extreme and less polarized if they can discuss the issues with each other. Rather, deliberation often leads people to taking more extreme positions.

Chapter 2: Extremism: Why and When
Sunstein argues that the way people within groups obtain and share information is one of the essential ingredients for polarization, and likely extremism, too. Generally, what people know is already skewed in a certain direction and when they speak with each other they basically confirm what each of them already believes. Consider Marc Sageman’s research on the radicalization process for terrorists. He finds that, “a group of guys in an echo chamber communicate with each other spiraling to a further extreme until they are moved to join a terrorist group.” Many members of terrorist organizations explain that they joined because of political goals that they have and believe they can best achieve through joining these organizations.
In obtaining information through social networks that are ideologically homogeneous, people tend to assimilate information that leads them to a desirable conclusion. For example, one Pew Poll found that while 93% of Americans believe that Arab terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, only 11% of Kuwaitis believe this. One explanation is that people in Kuwait are isolated from the United States, receive a particular source of information, and are motivated to view the “enemies of America” as very distinct from themselves.
A similar pattern can be seen in politics in America. People tend to view websites, read newspapers and blogs, listen to radio shows, and watch television programs that support their pre-existing views.
Social psychological research shows that people are biased in how they assimilate information. When presented with the same set of facts and each side’s argument in favor of or against capital punishment, the participants tended to only believe the facts that supported their views and while they tended to discredit the facts supporting the other views. Often, when encountering information challenging pre-existing beliefs, people respond by labeling the uncongenial points as silly or stupid, and derogate the people espousing those points. This can be viewed as “tribalism,” where people rally to defend their tribe and attack other tribes.
Sunstein also notes that political extremists are typically far from irrational. Rather, they tend to have a very narrow set of knowledge on an issue, and what they know supports their extremism. It’s also important to recognize that extremism is not necessarily bad. In fact, extremism is sometimes defensible and right (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela).
Chapter 3: Movements
Groups that live in isolated communities are more prone to polarization, as they are more likely to have shared concerns, shared grievances, and a shared identity. However, if a group is diffused within the general population, they have less opportunity for discussion with like-minded others and, thus, lack a polarized group consciousness. Successful reform movements often occur because of these processes of polarization, as being in like-minded groups makes it easier to organize and mobilize.
Extremists do not usually suffer from a mental illness. Nor are they typically irrational. Rather, they likely do not have personal and/or direct information about an issue in question. In these cases, people will often rely on what other people think—especially people they view as reliable sources of information. Thus, people who believe in conspiracy theories like the idea that the Central Intelligence Agency was behind the Kennedy assassination (or, perhaps, the view that President Obama was not born in America, or may be the “anti-Christ”) are acting rationally using the limited information they have.
Furthermore, once people hold a certain belief, they are motivated to confirm that belief by accepting confirmatory data while rejecting any disconfirming data (possibly, by saying that it was gathered through bad science, or was being espoused by someone with a political bias).
People tend to feel an “unrealistic optimism” and extremists tend to have the highest levels of unrealistic optimism. In other words, extremists tend to have an inflated perception that their actions will lead to the desired results. If we think of extremists as irrational, it becomes more difficult to understand and prevent their actions. Therefore, it’s important for us to recognize that polarization and demonization are products of basic human psychology which affects most people at some point in their lives.
Chapter 4: Preventing Extremism
Sunstein proposes that there are three primary means that nations typically use to combat “unjustified extremism.”
1) Edmund Burke argued that following tradition provides stability for a society, and, in doing so, protects a country’s citizens from the changes advocated by groups of people stirred by passions of the day. He viewed tradition as a check on extreme movements, as respecting tradition may encourage people to be wary of radical ideas that challenge the status quo. Thus, people who have a high respect for tradition may be the least likely to polarize. Many political philosophers have taken issue with this traditionalist model arguing that tradition is not necessarily good, or inherently better than modern reforms. James Madison famously argued against traditionalism in stating, “Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for customs, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense?
2) Jeremy Bentham proposed that careful consideration of the consequences of actions can stifle “bad extremism.” A problem with this consequentialist viewpoint is that people tend to selectively interpret evidence and can reach opposing conclusions from the same information. The process of deliberating on these facts with others may lead the groups to become more polarized than they were initially.
3) The third, often associated with James Madison, is checks and balances. The founding fathers of the United States’ constitution had extremism and polarization in mind when developing the system of checks and balances. Specifically, the founders expected the House of Representatives to be a more mercurial branch of government that would craft policy guided most by the popular passions and group polarization. The Senate, however, was to ensure that ill-considered legislation did not become law.
Importantly, group deliberation does NOT necessarily lead to truth. The Jury Theorem suggests that large groups of people can make better decisions than smaller groups, IF the people deliberating in the groups are more likely to be right than wrong. If people the people in the group are more likely to be wrong than right, then the likelihood that the group’s majority will decide correctly drops to zero as the group size increases. Thus, group deliberation is more likely to work well if the deliberators are cognitively diverse (i.e., having different approaches, training, and perspectives).
Chapter 5: Good Extremism
Barry Goldwater was correct in stating that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Extremism is not always bad. Thomas Jefferson even wrote that social “turbulence can be productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to… public affairs. I hold… that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” In addition to maintaining the legitimacy of the government, extremism and polarization can promote political engagement and lead to greater political participation.
The problem is not simply polarization, rather it is when people are isolated and have minimal contact with others who have alternative viewpoints. This isolation and the feeling of marginality are the factors that make polarization particularly dangerous. To prevent this type of polarization, Sunstein argues for the creation of spaces where people can discuss their views that is not insulated from those outside of the group (perhaps groups such as The Village Square are doing this).

About The Author
Cass Sunstein is an American legal scholar, former professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and current professor at Harvard Law School, in addition to serving as President Obama’s Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He has authored 36 books on law, decision-making, and politics. One of his books, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, was named “Best Book of The Year” in 2008 by The Economist.


Read Ahead

How is the Lunatic Fringe Hijacking America? John Avlon Explains in Wingnuts

Image of Book Cover



The culture wars pit the Democrats in the blue corner against the Republicans in the red corner in an epic battle featured by all major news outlets. This political pugilism is fought by hyper-partisan liberals and conservatives who claim victory by screaming louder than their opponents. In Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America,  John Avlon (a former speech writer for Rudy Giuliani) discusses how these extreme Democrats and Republicans, or Wingnuts, represent a small minority of people who care more for their political ideology than they do for their country as a whole.

Avlon documents how Wingnuts on the left and right sides of the political spectrum are actually quite similar to each other and use similar logic and tactics. This timely, engaging book is replete with interviews with liberals who attacked former President Bush as a “domestic terrorist,” a “Fascist,” and “an enemy of humanity” in the years before conservatives used similar attacks on President Obama. 

Application to Civil Politics
In the psychological research on group conflict, members of each group tend to exhibit mirror image perceptions of each other. Members of each group think that they are on the side of good defending the world from the evil perpetrated by the other side. Some of my past research argues that the most passionate defenders of belief systems are particularly likely to view themselves as righteous and all opponents as threats to the proper way of the world. Similarly, each group views themselves as arriving at their beliefs through a rational and objective evaluation of the facts. On the other hand, groups view other groups as arriving at their beliefs through an irrational or ideologically-biased evaluation of the facts.  

Detailed Chapter Summaries
Ch. 1 Introducing the Wingnuts

In the past few decades, extremists, or Wingnuts, have hijacked the political debate in the United States by screaming louder than everyone else. They divide the world into false dichotomies of “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil,” “black” and “white,” “Democrats” and “Republicans.” This tactic of division creates a sense of ingroups and outgroups which makes it easier to wish ill upon the other team, as elections are zero-sum contests where losses for one team are victories for another. This is exemplified by the change in the evolving aspirations for political opponents. Specifically, following the 1960 election of JFK, John Wayne stated, “I didn't vote for him, but he's my president, and I hope he does a good job." However, after the 2008 election of President Obama, Rush Limbaughstated “I hope he fails." Despite the decline in party membership and the fact that only 11% of Americans identify as liberal Democrats and 15% identify as conservative Republicans, these Wingnuts are increasingly commanding the political debate. In doing so, these extremes are echoing and confirming each other’s worst stereotypes of each other.

Ch. 2 Of Tea Parties and Town Halls

In this chapter, Avlon asserts that political “extremes end up resembling each other.” This point is perhaps best illustrated by the strategic playbook used by extremists across time. During the civil rights era, far-left activists adhered to the principles promoted in the classic text by Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, which suggests that on the political battlefield, the ends justify any means. In the summer of 2009 as elected officials headed home to their districts to discuss healthcare reform in town hall meetings, far-right activists had adopted Alinsky’s strategy. In a now-famous memo by Bob MacGuffie of Right Principles, he implored conservative wingnuts to “use the Saul Alinsky playbook of which the left is so proud: freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it.” He continued on telling the protestors at these town hall meetings to “put the Representative on the defensive…You need to rock the boat early. Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Representative’s statements early. If he [the Representative] blames Bush for something or offers other excuses—call him on it, yell back, and have someone else follow up with a shout-out… Look for these opportunities even before he takes questions.” As this movement gained steam, these town hall meetings became increasingly hostile. The hostility boiled over culminating in fist fights in Florida, scuffles between senior citizens, brawls between members of the Tea Party and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with some participants being arrested and hospitalized, and even, in one particularly gruesome case in California, one healthcare reform opponent had his finger bitten off at rally.

Chapter 3: Obama Derangement Syndrome

Avlon describes “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” which is the conservative form of Bush Derangement Syndrome (recall when liberal wingnuts would say things like “Hang Bush for War Crimes,” “Save Mother Earth, Kill Bush,” and “Bush is the Only Dope Worth Shooting). In Obama Derangement Syndrome, conservative wingnuts began espousing similar rhetoric as liberal wingnuts had just years earlier. As news spread on election night that Obama had won, one commenter on the FoxNews website stated, “Let’s have a huge parade. How about November 22… in Dallas… Barack can ride in the back of a convertible with his wife… they could drive by the school book depository.” The day following his election a school bus full of second and third graders in Madison County, Idaho reportedly was chanting “assassinate Obama.” Ministers were making similar statements from their pulpits that Sunday, too. For example, Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church gave a sermon titled “Why I Hate Barack Obama.” In this sermon he preached, “I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don't like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don't like his policies. No, I hate him… I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.” He continued by offering to make an imprecatory prayer condemning Obama. This prayer read: “Break his teeth, Oh God, in his mouth; as a snail which molteth, let him pass away; like an untimely birth of a woman–that he thinks–he calls it a woman's right to choose, you know, he thinks it's so wonderful, he ought to be aborted. It ought to be, "Abort Obama," that ought to be the motto."

Chapter 4: The Birth of White Minority Politics

The 2008 Presidential Election made the existing racial differences between the Democratic and Republican parties more apparent. African American voters greatly preferred Obama, even more so than they usually prefer Democratic candidates. This strong support was a big factor in Obama’s success in some places that Democrats had not won since the civil rights era like Virginia. However, white, older voters in the Deep South greatly preferred McCain. In fact, in the 49 counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi where whites comprise more than 90% of the population, Obama did far worse than previous Democratic candidates and lost every single one of those counties. Avlon suggests that Obama’s race may have implicitly served as more fuel on the fire stoking conservative’s fears that their ideal of America was under assault and that it needed to be defended.

Chapter 5: Polarizing for Profit

In a tough media market where audience members have countless choices of places to get their news from, media corporations are competing for regular and frequent viewers. This premium audience tends to be more extreme than the overall population. Michael Medved suggests that in order to get this audience’s loyalty, “you have something of a push to be outrageous, to be on the fringe.” The media used to primarily use the “split-scream” approach where a wingnut from each side of the political spectrum would scream their talking points at one another. Today, however, media is increasingly partisan with its primetime programming being more akin to an “echo-chamber,” where angry people from one party incite each other to extremes while they demonize the opposition without letting anyone defend the oppositions’ view. This echo chamber media model may intensify groupthink and polarization, making it ever more difficult to understand people who disagree with your politics.

Chapter 6: Sarah Palin and the Limbaugh Brigades

Wingnuts on the left and right tend to assume the worst about the opposition and often wish for the other side’s failure. This is exemplified in Sarah Palin’s repeated statements that President Obama “is someone who sees America as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who target their own country.” Similarly, in the lead up to President Obama’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh was asked to write 400 words for a magazine regarding his hopes for the Obama administration. Limbaugh responded, "I don't need 400 words; I need four: I hope he fails." This type of demonization is not limited to wingnuts on the right. Consider statements by the now-former Representative Alan Grayson who called the Republicans "foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who think they can dictate policy to America by being stubborn," and later called them "the enemy of America" and "certainly the enemy of peace." Avlon notes that both parties hope to unite Americans, but implores the wingnuts who are trying to do so by first dividing Americans.

Chapter 7: Hunting for Heretics
Political extremists desire ideological purity for the members of their political parties. Following the 2008 elections where many Congressional Republicans lost their seats, Republican wingnuts argued that the losses were “a cleansing for the party. We got rid of some dead weight; we got rid of some RINOs–Republicans in Name Only. There are Republicans today, like myself that are rooting against Norm Coleman, hoping Al Franken wins, just so we can at least have a real Republican next time around. I mean, for me I'm like 'Let's kick 'em all out,' you know. The ones that act like they're real conservatives that weren't, hey, go on home." Democratic wingnuts, such as those at Revolution Books, challenge Democrats in Name Only (DINOs). For example, after the election of President Barack Obama, they described him as “the same Bush program rebranded.” This bookstore also marketed bottles of “Obamalade.”

Image of Obamalade

A list of ingredients was inscribed on each of their labels and contained such items as “massacres in Gaza, Rick Warren, escalation of the Afghanistan war, Hillary Clinton, bailout of big business, Rahm Emanuel, blaming black people for problems the system inflicts on them, the ‘coming together’ with those who hate gay people, Robert Gates, whitewashing torture by the Bush regime, and the Patriot Act.” Further, a surgeon general’s warning was printed on each label: “Obamalade causes massive loss of life in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan and many other countries; continued attacks on Black people, women, immigrants, gays & lesbians; political cowardice that is dangerous to the health of humanity. If, after drinking Obamalade, you find yourself accepting the crimes of this system–you should immediately take 2 doses of reality and report to the nearest movement of resistance against these crimes." These labels contained the basic description of the liberal wingnut worldview—America is the world’s prime oppressor.

Chapter 8: The Big Lie: Birthers and Truthers

Wingnuts tend to devise many theories that they can use to feed their fears and justify their hatred for the opposition. Two of the most discussed conspiracy theories of the decade are those proposing that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were an inside job and those proposing that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Originally, those promoting the 9/11 conspiracy (the “Truthers”) were wingnut liberals wanting to attack President Bush. Oddly, though, most Truthers today are wingnut anti-government conservatives. We see a similar reversal among those promoting the Barack Obama birth certificate conspiracy (the “Birthers”). Originally, Birthers were mostly wingnut liberals during the Democratic primary campaign who did not think that Obama was liberal enough. However, today, most Birthers tend to be wingnut conservatives. Both of these conspiracy theories have gotten a great deal of media coverage and have disseminated to much of the American public. In 2006, 38% of Americans believed that the United States federal government either played an active role in the 9/11 attacks or the government took no action to stop the attacks so that the attacks could be used as a justification for going to war. More recently and in regards to the Birther conspiracy, a poll showed that 58% of Republicans did not believe that President Obama was born in the United States.

Chapter 9: The Hatriots: Armed and Dangerous

In this time of political division and increasingly hostile debate, there is a sense that the country is on the verge of crisis and can only be saved by drastic action. Clark McCauley describes this as a “psychology of crisis” that motivates people to engage in violent, and even murderous political action including terrorism. Wingnut conservative and Arizona sheriff Richard Mack said, "The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government." One man at a Tea Party rally in Washington, D. C. was found carrying automatic guns with the phrases “NoBama” and “Christian Warrior” inscribed on them. In this environment, all that may be needed to provoke action may be the slightest spark.

Chapter 10: Conclusion: How Take America Back from the Lunatic Fringe

Wingnuts may get the most attention in the media, but they are not representative of America. Rather, the non-shouting people who care more about solving problems than screaming at political opponents are the vast majority of Americans. These ordinary Americans need to declare their disapproval for these tactics and make their views heard. The growing number of political independents (that is, those changing their voter registration from Republican or Democrat to unaffiliated or independent) may be seen as evidence for this hypothesis. Avlon reminds us that George Washington was the original independent who rejected the politics of demonization endorsed by wingnuts. In Washington's farewell address, he insisted that there was no greater threat to democracy than the partisan demagogue who "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another." Avlon implores Americans to remember Washington’s warnings and to heed his suggestions of rejecting partisan demagogues.
Matt Motyl

Read Ahead

Fight Club Politics and How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives

Image of Book


In Fight Club Politics, Juliet Eilperin reviews the major factors that seem to be creating an atmosphere of incivility in the United States House of Representatives. She begins by discussing how many Republicans were frustrated, if not downright enraged, by the way the Democratic party controlled Congress during the 1980s. When the Republicans took control over Congress in 1994, they sought to redress their grievances and pass their ambitious agenda while marginalizing Democrats. Since then, there has been a cycle of sniping where each party has become increasingly polarized and hostile toward the opposition party. Importantly, Eilperin notes that both parties are guilty of creating this problem and that both are responsible for cleaning up Congress.

Eilperin reviews how little-discussed private House rules can shutdown debate, prevent the minority party from contributing to the development of legislation, and sometimes prevent the minority party from even reading the legislative documents before being asked to vote on them. Further, she demonstrates how efforts to re-draw congressional districts every 10 years have led to districts that are increasingly extreme and more tolerant of extremist candidates than more moderate ones. In closing, Eilperin discusses different strategies for ways to improve the many problems in Congress that she views as stemming primarily from re-districting and party power structures. The problems are incredibly complex and there are no clear, simple solutions in sight. There are, however, case studies in states across the country where citizens have risen up and demanded reform. How these state-level solutions would generalize for a national solution is not entirely clear. However, whatever solution is eventually pursued is likely to be some combination of the approaches being developed at the state level today.

Application to Civil Politics

Over the past couple of decades, the major political parties have gained considerable strength in demanding support for the party line and threatening to remove financial support and powerful committee chairmanships for any iconoclasts. With the more ideologically-extreme congressional districts, politicians are less accountable to the American people than they are to their party’s leadership who contributes to the drawing of their districts every 10 years. This partisan re-districting effort makes it so that is easier for more ideologically-extreme candidates to get elected to office and, once there, further the partisan divide in Congress. This hyperpartisanship may take the focus away from policy and place it onto strategic victories by one party over another.


Detailed Chapter Summaries

Introduction: Revolution and Redistricting

Following the Republican Revolution in 1994, newly-elected Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich welcomed new Republican congress-people with a speech that would set the stage (or perhaps, the battlefield) for at least the next two decades. He told them the story of how the Duke of Wellington defeated the vastly more powerful French in the early 1800s. Gingrich portrayed the Republican landslide in similar fashion—a party that had relatively less political muscle than the long-term majority Democrats had won through the use of excellent strategizing. Shortly after taking the post as Speaker of the House, Gingrich sent a number of his Republican colleagues to a military training facility where they could learn more about war operations that they could later apply to achieving their policy goals in Congress.

Part of this revolution involved creating increasingly politically-safe and ideologically-tilted congressional districts (for more on how congressional districts have changed over time, see Lauren Howe's report on Bill Bishop's The Big Sort). This redistricting process brought about greater polarization because the voters in a given district were more heavily Democratic or Republican and voted for increasingly extreme ideologues from both parties. Eilperin quips that “this is the story of how the House of Representative became the House of Unrepresentatives.” It is important to note that this has not been a unilateral event. Rather, both parties have engaged in many of the same tactics to reinforce this hyperpartisan divide. This approach may have made the congress a more efficient machine in that it passes legislation, but also more dysfunctional as the minority party is increasingly not considered in the crafting of legislation. This exclusion leads the minority party to spend much of their time issuing press releases, complaining about being excluding, and writing policies that will likely never even be voted on, let alone become law.
Chapter 1: Revamping the House of Representatives

The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for decades and became increasingly dictatorial under the Speakership of Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and then Jim Wright (D-TX). In doing so, they became much more aggressive toward the Republican minority. The minority party was excluded from much debate, excluded from the writing of much policy, and publicly mocked. The frustration built to a point where the Republican minority stood in virtual unanimous opposition the Democrats and any bills they advocated. Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) was quoted saying, “Hello gentlemen! What are we against today?” One of his colleagues responded, “We don’t know yet sir, but we’re going to make damn sure it doesn’t happen!”

After the Republicans gained the majority in 1994, Speaker Newt Gingrich implemented House rules changes giving Republicans about 2/3 of the House’s committee seats despite the House GOP only carrying 52.4% of the vote. This allowed first-term, freshly-elected congress-people to be assigned to powerful committees despite their lack of seniority, which angered many of the more senior members from the new minority party. Next, House Republicans also changed the orientation process that all new congress-people underwent following their election. Previously, all congress-people attended a bipartisan orientation at Harvard University and several other joint sessions in Washington, D. C. However, the GOP House leadership shifted to partisan orientations where all of the incoming Republican officials went to the Heritage Foundation for their orientation. The 1994 election gave Republicans a small majority in Congress, so in order to ensure their party’s likelihood of success, they centralized power with the House leaders’ and each party’s campaign committees demanded financial dues to solidify each party’s coffers. The two parties were supported by increasingly ideologically-divided PACs which demanded 100% agreement on their important issues. Between these two institutional shifts, breaking ranks and voting for a policy that one’s own party did not support could very well mean losing important committee positions and campaign funding. In sum, despite the Republicans’ frustration with the Democratic majority from previous decades, they adopted many of the same frustrating approaches marginalizing the minority.

Chapter 2: Tearing Washington’s Social Fabric Apart

Over time, congress-people have been spending less and less time in Washington, D. C. and exhibiting nearly an 80% decrease in the number of elected officials with residences in the district. This institutional change allowed for less inter-party contact making it easier to demonize members of the other party. Rep. David Obey (D-WI) stated, “It’s harder than hell to kick somebody on a personal basis when you think you’re going to see their wife and kids later in the week. Today that’s all gone.”

Chapter 3: Legislating Without a Partnership

Republicans and Democrats often point the finger at each other for the lack of minority influence on policy. The solution seems to be something of a chicken and the egg problem. On the one hand, Democrats claim that Republicans deliberately shut them out of policy discussions once the Republicans became the majority. On the other hand, Republicans claim that Democrats were unwilling and uninterested in compromising across party lines. Regardless of the origin of this schism, there is a clear decrease in cross-party communication in crafting legislation. Former Majority Whip Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) director of floor operations, Amy Steinmann said that “for my purposes, they [Democrats] are irrelevant.”

Another institutional change that seems to inhibit the cross-party partnerships is that the rules mandating 48 hours to review all proposals are now routinely waived. There are cases where bills are printed, sent to the congress-people’s offices, and voted on within a matter of minutes or hours. For example, in 2005, the Democrats were given 1 hour to review a 3,000 page, $1 trillion spending bill before having to cast their vote. In this unrealistic window to review the contents of proposals, party members tend to side with each other and do not have time to even attempt to broker cross-party alliances.

Chapter 4: House Centrists Disappear

Both parties aspire to create more cohesive voting blocs and are able to leverage their financial resources to “encourage” their members to support the party line. Gone are the days when conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans could splinter off and form their own voting blocs. In fact, according to research by Poole and Rosenthal, congressional Democrats and Republicans are more sorted and more polarized than ever. Their measurement involves rank ordering all of the members of congress along a spectrum from extremely liberal to extremely conservative based. During the 91st Congress (during Nixon’s presidency), the Democrats fell into all of the possible categories ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative; the Republicans fell in all of the categories except for the extremely liberal one. In the 105th Congress (during Clinton’s 5th and 6th years as president), the Democrats fell in the four most liberal categories and the Republicans fell in the four most conservative categories, with no members of either party falling on the other end of the spectrum. This is one piece of evidence further suggesting elite polarization. The party leadership for both the Democrats and Republicans encourage this polarization because it helps them homogenize their voting bloc and enhances their party’s ability to promote or stall legislation, particularly when they are in the majority.

Another hurdle for centrists is that congressional districts are being redrawn each decade in such a way to maximize the ideological extremity of each district. This makes sense for the parties because it helps them ensure that their preferred candidate will almost be assured victory in their district and they do not have to waste valuable campaign resources trying to convert partisans from the other side. Former Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM) stated that, “people in fewer and fewer districts have to listen to more mainstream voters… For most of my colleagues, getting elected is a formality.” Similarly, former history professor and current Representative Bob Filner (D-CA) describes the House as “a feudal institution. The only way you get anything done around here is through personal relationships, lord-vassal relationships… You kiss the ring, or kiss the rear end of your chairman. If they don’t like you, you’re finished. It’s not about the issues.” As congressional leadership is increasingly centralized and party dissent penalized, elected officials are forced into doing the bidding of what their party leadership tells them. Increasingly problematic is that now lobbying groups do not need to spend much time lobbying congress-people. Rather, they get the party leadership’s support and then simply focus their energy in lobbying Senators. One anonymous lobbyist indicated that he “used to spend a lot of time in the House… [but now] Why would [he] spend time in the House? It just does everything we want.”

Chapter 5: Reshaping America’s Political Map

Politicians have been gerrymandering districts for generations, but they are becoming more adept at it. At one point, party strategists were determining likely Democratic and Republican voters based on the types of cars in driveways, but now they have complicated computer models that can determine which neighborhood blocks voted for which parties. The laws on re-drawing congressional districts vary from state-to-state and some states have their districts re-drawn in more political ways than others. In California, the re-districting process is one of the few political arenas where Democrats and Republicans compromise. The parties trade plots of land that will help each other make the seats they control more likely to remain under their control. Following the 2002 re-districting effort, every one of California’s 153 state or federal legislative seats remained in the hands of the incumbent. At the national level, 91% of House candidates ran unopposed. House political analyst Charlie Cook viewed only 11 of the 435 seats of congress as “toss-ups” where either party had a reasonable chance to win the seat. Senior state legislator Bill Thomas (R-CA) said “that’s outrageous… You have the creation of districts that are more selected by the candidate than the constituent.”

In these safe congressional districts, the real decision-making is made in the dominant party’s primary. People who vote in primary elections tend to be the most ideologically extreme members of a party and rarely exceed 10% of the potential voting population. Thus, for candidates to win the nomination they are forced to adopt more extreme positions. American University professor James Thurber quipped, “If you’re from Berkeley you have to declare yourself a Marxist, not a socialist to get elected.” Once the dominant party has selected its candidate, it is almost guaranteed that s/he will win the general election in that district because the minority party just does not have enough votes to be a realistic challenge—assuming that the minority party is even able to field a candidate in that district.

Chapter 6: The Road to Redistricting Reform

“As a mapmaker, I can have more of an impact on an election than a campaign, than a candidate. When I, as a mapmaker, have more of an impact on an election than the voters, the system is out of whack,” said GOP consultant David Winston. To remedy this problem, states have tried many approaches. Iowa has put the re-districting efforts into the hands of a nonpartisan legislative group who draws the districts and then passes the proposal onto the state legislature who votes for or against it and is not allowed to modify it. This has led to relatively competitive seats in Iowa, but may not work for the more culturally-heterogeneous regions of the United States. In New Jersey, the state Supreme Court appointed Princeton University professor Larry Bartels to devise a fair system. His stated goal is to develop a system where states draw their districts in such a way that each party gets a number of seats commensurate with the amount of support each party got within the state. Many agree that there must be major re-districting reform, possibly at the national-level, but hopes for such reform are low as voters do not typically rank re-districting as particularly high on their list of priorities. Ultimately, though, districts need to be drawn so that our representatives encounter diverse perspectives, as that would be more representative of the nation as a whole.

Chapter 7: How To Restore Civility to the House

“The only way to get back to a more collaborative atmosphere is for the people to demand it,” said former Rep. Dick Gephardt. Bill Tauzin echoed this, suggesting that, “there is no institutional support for restoring comity and respect and order. It’s going to take some cataclysmic voter reaction.” Eilperin concludes by emphasizing that if the system is going to change it is going to change because of voter action.

Author Info

Juliet Eilperin graduated from Princeton University and has been The Washington Post’s House of Representatives reporter since 1998. In that time, she’s observed countless debates on and off the floors of Congress including Bill Clinton’s impeachment process, lobbying, and four national congressional campaigns. During her first year at the Post she was their most prolific author in writing more than 200 stories.

Matt Motyl

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