The Ten Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction

[This post was crossposted from]

Here is my most complete talk on the causes of America’s rising political polarization and dysfunction. It’s more pessimistic than my prior talks. I was invited to speak in November at the NYU Law School, at a session hosted by professor Rick Pildes. Pildes wrote a superb law review article in 2011 on the causes of our dysfunction, from an “institutionalist” perspective, looking at Congress and electoral processes: Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America

When I first read it, I thought Pildes’s account of the history was enlightening, but I thought he was too negative about the chances for real reform. But I re-read his paper while preparing for this talk, and realized he was right — and prophetic. He predicted that Obama would soon start bypassing congress and implementing policy by regulatory fiat; he predicted that one or both parties would soon start cutting back on the filibuster, unilaterally.

In this talk I integrate moral psychology with recent American history to explain the TEN reasons why America has been getting more polarized — at the elite level AND at the mass (public) level. My talk runs from minute 2 to minute 46, and then there’s commentary from Pildes, then open discussion.

Here is the list of 10 causes that I showed in the video:

1) Party realignment and purification,  1964-1992

2) Mass sorting of lib vs. con voters into the purified parties, by 1990s

3) Generational changing of the guard, from Greatest Gen to Baby Boomers, 1990s

4) Changes in Congress, 1995—death of friendships

5) Media fractionation and polarization, since 1980s

6) Residential homogeneity, urban v. rural, 1990s

7) Increasing role of money, negative advertising, 2000s

8) End of the cold war, loss of a common enemy, 1989

9) Increasing immigration and racial diversity, 1990s

10) Increasing education, since 1970s (more educated citizens are more partisan and opinionated about politics)

I show how these 10 trends interact with the moral psychology I presented in The Righteous Mind to produce the strong and steady rise in polarization that we’ve seen since the 1990s. Note that most of these trends cannot be reversed. Morality binds and blinds, and for these 10 reasons, morality been binding us ever more tightly in the last 10-20 years. “Affective partisan polarization” — the degree to which we hold negative views of the other team — has been rising steadily, and there is no end in sight.