Knotts, Ragusa: Congressional dysfunction didn’t happen overnight

October 16, 2013 

— There is plenty of blame to divvy out over the federal government shutdown and the flirtation with default, and we want to make the case for where the finger should, and should not, be pointed.

First, don’t place too much of the blame on the South or the tea party. There is certainly a rebellious streak in the South, but the region’s role in the current shutdown is overstated. While the South has become the most Republican region in the country, the two-party realignment and resulting increase in ideological polarization are national trends.

A similar argument applies to the tea party, which has drawn ire from the national media and served as fodder for the late-night talk shows. Like the South, the rise of the uber-conservative tea party is a function of larger national dynamics. For example, moderate Republicans have become more ideologically conservative at the same rate as their tea party brethren.

Political polarization is the primary cause of the government shutdown, but we need to see polarization as a 40-year national trend affecting both parties rather than something isolated to a specific region and one faction of one party.

How did this happen? First, in the decades following the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern Democrats realigned into the Republican Party and liberal Northeastern Republicans became Democrats. Second, Congress enacted a series of reforms in the 1970s that strengthened the power of party leaders at the expense of centrist lawmakers and committee chairs. And third, party leaders became more polarized over time — and individual voters followed suit.

Contrary to this conventional wisdom, gerrymandering — the drawing of congressional districts for political purposes — has only a small effect on polarization. Consider the fact that the Senate — which cannot be gerrymandered — has polarized at roughly the same rate as the House.

Even after a budget is passed and the government reopens, governance in our polarized political climate will continue to be a challenge. For that, we can thank the U.S. Constitution. Our winner-take-all electoral system, bicameral legislature and sharing of powers between the legislative and executive branches provide checks and balances, but in a nation evenly divided between two major parties, it also can lead to gridlock.

Gibbs Knotts

Chair, Political Science Department

Jordan Ragusa

Assistant Professor

College of Charleston


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