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where that manifests itself in the policy realm. It’s certainly true distribution of views among the American population where the in the size of government, all of these dangerous fiscal cliff actions center still holds in terms of broad public views on even the most that are taking place. It’s certainly true on the social issues, by controversial issues. The difficulty is that the institutional frameand large, where there are just two concepts that are pretty far work through which those social views are mediated reinforces apart and hard to bridge the gap. the poles. The election system where we use “first past the post”— The military and our foreign policy muscle was the third area. that you get one more than the other side and you get everything— Now, interestingly enough, you’d be hard pressed to really find means that you’re going to end up with two basic parties. great differences between the current president and the past pres- PILDES: Let’s talk about the dramatic change in the media over the ident on most foreign policy matters. So we need to take a look last 10 years. We no longer have the three major broadcast netwithin those particular issues for why this is happening. works with 25 million viewers and network anchors like Walter PI LDE S: But why would certain issues be more polarCronkite or Tom Brokaw, centrists moderating repizing today than in the past? Haven’t we always resentations of what’s going on in politics. Instead, been deeply divided at some ideological level on we have cable television and the Internet, which is these kinds of issues? a much greater source of political information but G I N S B E RG : The country is going through a growth which many people use to confirm the beliefs they spurt and hasn’t quite come to grips with who it already hold. How much is public opinion actually is. You’ve written about the Voting Rights Act and more polarized today? And how much are politics how that started breaking up the coalitions. The actually reflecting that polarization? Vietnam War tore the Democratic coalition asunMON IC A YOU N, BRENNAN CENTER CONSTITUTIONAL FELLOW, der. Coalitions have been breaking up over the last NYU SCHOOL OF L AW: People who study election law 40 or 50 years and just aren’t quite re-formed yet. tend to be policy wonks, and that often leads to an Samuel Issacharoff The media is a very different place today in terms assumption that people vote their policy preferof transmitting views than it was even 10 years ago. ences. Sam is absolutely right to say that there still It’s much more polarized. Over the last 40 years is a relatively bell-shaped distribution of views on people have come to live much more with peoa number of social issues. What the evidence of the ple like them rather than in diverse communities. southern Democrats and the Rockefeller RepubThat contributes, too. licans has hinted to me is that people will vote M I C HAE L WALDM AN ’87, PRESIDENT, THE BRENNAN CENTER their party even despite their policy preferences. FOR JUSTICE: Well, the period of consensus that we People’s affiliation towards parties may be less think of as the norm from which we’ve deviated was policy-based than tribal affective, more like a itself unusual in American history. Many things that sports team or a religion. were the quirks of American politics have worked SEAN CAIRNCROSS ’01, FORMER DEPUTY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR themselves out and are no longer so different. It AND GENER AL COUNSEL , NATIONAL REPUBLICAN SENATORIAL Robert Bauer used to be said that Americans were ideologically COMMIT TEE: Today we woke up and found out that conservative and operationally liberal. Now people the House is moving toward an immigration packtend to sort out more in both of those areas. age that is probably going to look like the Senate’s I have a book in my office, The Deadlock of Democimmigration package. So one of the most controracy, which not only talks about political parties not versial issues of our current time where both parties being responsible and you couldn’t tell what the have skin in the game looks to be moving forward. difference was between them, but that there were Just a little bit of perspective that we shouldn’t stand really multiple party systems where conservative on the panic button. southern Democrats and northern liberal RepubBut I agree with Ben that the relationships licans each played their own roles. Those vanished between the principals who negotiate these issues in the mid-1960s with the move of southern white has changed. People travel home much more. There’s Democrats slowly into the Republican Party, first a 24-hour news cycle and the Internet, and you can Sean Cairncross for the presidency, then for the Senate, then for the rest assured that if you are cutting a deal or you are House. Less noticed but just as significant, the Rockefeller Repub- moderating on an issue that that is a very real force. I can tell you licans disappeared in the Northeast. These big trends make us after two cycles at the senatorial committee that the potential look more like a European-style ideologically divided party sys- for a primary challenge, and this is true on both sides of the aisle, tem. The challenge is not so much polarization but paralysis. Can is a significant constraint on your ability to negotiate. we have a system as polarized as it is now without government PI LDES: But what are the larger causes? I wanted to ask particularly being either paralyzed or lurching from one extreme to the other? about some institutional features of the election system that may PILDES: That is one of the big questions. If we are forming Europeanbe contributing. And should we consider changing some of them? style parliamentary parties—a much more unified Democratic You all brought up primary elections, which is perhaps the Party, a much more unified Republican Party, much sharper dif- single biggest institutional factor that contributes to the polarferentiations between the parties—can those changes be made to ization of office holders today. Although primary elections were work within an institutional framework from 200 years ago that celebrated as great democratic achievements, wresting control of wasn’t designed with the idea of political parties at all? the choice of candidates from the smoke-filled back rooms of the SAMU E L ISSACHAROFF, BONNIE AND RICHARD REISS PROFESSOR OF CONSTITUparty bosses in the late 19th century, over time voter turnout in TIONAL L AW: I don’t find the polarization disturbing. People should primary elections, even for very significant races like for Senate, disagree strongly about things like the death penalty or abortion has become shockingly low. And not surprisingly the people who or the size of the military or foreign interventions. What I find reas- show up for primary elections in both parties are the most comsuring is that public opinion surveys generally show a bell-shaped mitted party activists, the most ideological wings of the parties.
Published on Sep 6, 2013