Unfairly picking on Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein wrote a article about “No Labels,” a non-partisan group dedicated to “Not left. Not right. Forward.” I don’t have a qualm with either the group’s objective or Klein’s take. Actually, I think they are both very good. I do, however, have one minor issue with the article. It’s a nit-picky complaint but one that I think needs to be highlighted. So if it sounds like I’m beating a dead horse, I am. But I’m determined to shed light on this fact until somebody with more charisma, charm, and gravitas picks it up and runs with it.

Here’s Klein on congressional politics over the past sixty-years:

“But in Congress, in particular, it calmed. Political scientists have developed models to test congressional polarization, and the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were notable for the moderation of the two parties…The ‘80s, however, weren’t. That’s when party polarization accelerated. In the ‘90s, the rise was even faster. In the 1994 election, Republicans all but completed their sweep of the South, which dragged their party further to the right. Since 2000, polarization has only gotten worse.

American politics, in other words, has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. American political institutions have not. They’re built for consensus in an age of extreme polarization. There were more filibusters in 2009 and 2010 than in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s combined. Congressional Republicans almost forced the U.S. to default on its debt in 1995 and 2011. That would have been inconceivable in the middle of the century.” (my emphasis added)

Klein is mostly right. Congressional parties in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s were more moderate. Also, those same parties were much more polarized in the ’80s, ‘90’s, and most especially the ‘00s to today. The one problem with this article is the bolded statement. American politics has of course changed over the past 60 years but placing blame on society misses the most relevant factor affecting polarization. That is: because Congress changed polarization increased. The models political scientists use to measure members’ ideology is based on how members voted on various issues. This includes final passage votes and procedural votes (i.e. votes on the rules that structure debate, amendments, etc for a particular bill on the floor). Party polarization has increased because procedural votes and party discipline on those procedural votes has climbed since 1973.

Put simply, the congressional reforms in the 1970s are the most powerful factor explaining party voting polarization in Congress. These reforms empowered the Speaker and party leaders. They used these powers to: one, control the chamber’s floor agenda through the Rules Committee; two, determine the terms of debate and amendments through restrictive rules; and three, enhanced their ability to enforce party discipline through patronage and committee assignments among others. So, the two-fold increase in procedural votes and discipline on those procedural votes accounts for roughly 70% of all voting polarization in the House, and roughly 60% in the Senate, since 1973. If we only look at final passage votes, the parties do not look nearly as polarized as we would assume. Of course factors like gerrymandering, partisan sorting in the electorate, and constituency change affect polarization. But they their combined influence pales in comparison to the institutional forces at work.

If you are crazy about polarization you must read Sean Theriault’s book.

About Joshua Huder

This entry was posted in American Political Development, Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure, Polarization. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Unfairly picking on Ezra Klein

  1. Well argued, but I can’t agree. The key variable is the WEAKENING of parties, rather than the empowering of Congressional leadership. Speakers ran the House with an iron hand prior to the 70’s. And the party congressional leadership has LESS power over committee chairs than it used to; we’ve seen leadership choices passed over by the caucus membership.

    The advent of mass media has made individual candidates less dependent upon the party for their own electoral success. Confronted with the necessity of doing the bulk of their own fundraising, forced to create their own campaign organizations rather than rely on Party Committee endorsements…

    candidates are forced to rely on immoderate rhetoric and extreme positions in order to mobilize a base of supporters.

    The House has a Rules committee. Control of the Floor is assured. The Senate has no Rules Committee, and its “peculiar institutions” make its functioning dependent upon collegiality.

    Since the shift from party to candidate focused elections, partisanship has increased and collegiality has vanished This explains the increased use of the filibuster. And this is why the Senate has ceased to effectively function.


    • Joshua Huder says:

      You have a lot of good points. One point of contention is your take on the speakership. Speaker’s power was very weak from 1910 to 1975. Cannon ruling the chamber with an “Iron Fist” was at the tail end of dominant Speakers from the 1890s until 1910. From 1910 to 1975 it was a very weak institution compared to the power and influence they exercise today. Speakers like Rayburn, Martin, and MacCormack were influential in congressional politics but had very few procedural powers at their disposal.

  2. The CW says:

    I’d argue that the, while the political parties have become more polarized, the American people are not. The parties have just come to better represent those polarities. There have always been people who have believed what the GOP stands for and there have always been people who believe what the Left stands for but, before the 80s, the parties were more muddled. It was less clear, given a certain view of the world, which party a voter might align with. Now it is abundantly clear, so much so that voters who might have kept their beliefs to themselves now find strength in numbers to speak out regardless of how socially acceptable the rest of us might find it.

    The parties are simply better reflecting what the populace is really like.

  3. Ken in MN says:

    What’s changed is that the press will no longer call somebody out when they lie…

  4. Pamela says:

    Ken in MN – You are so right about that. GOP even seems to have a Lie Farm or it may be more aptly named a manufacturing plant… http://nyti.ms/ryeRb2

    I don’t mean to say that the Dems are always truthful but I don’t know of instances where they take a lie and to propagate it they create experts in think tanks to write paper supporting the lie and then get others to write about their papers and eventually it infiltrates the blood stream through some of the less than hard working part of the media and before you know it – everyone thinks this is the truth. And them there are the cable shows where they always pit both sides against each other, act as if both sides positions are equal and in fear of never getting that person from the other party back on their show… they sit quiet while the lies are not exposed and unless you are highly informed… you will be left with information that is indistinguishable from the truth.

  5. Pingback: How Air-Conditioning increased Polarization | Rule 22

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