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Americans are deeply polarized in this country but often incorrectly attribute it to growing partisanship and the strength of political parties. In fact, the opposite is true. Some scholars have argued that the growing polarization in Congress and in politics more generally is a symptom of a declining two-party system and identification of Americans with one of the two major parties.
Political parties have experienced a long-term decline in our political system and society over the past forty or fifty years. During the middle of the twentieth century, political parties were strong and played an important role in representing broad swaths of the American population, the majority of whom registered and identified with one of the major parties even if they did not always agree with every position.
However, Americans have increasingly identified themselves as independents and not beholden to one party or the other. The phrase that people use in conversation that they vote for the candidate rather than the party is revealing and indicative of a very important sea change in American politics. Moreover, primaries have replaced the proverbial smoke-filled rooms with party bosses who exercised a great deal of power. Special interests often control a great deal more money than do party organizations who are unable to control party members the way they did formerly that encouraged party loyalty.
Therefore, the lens through which we view politics today is really often clouded by liberal and conservative ideologies and our uncompromising allegiance to them rather than Republican and Democratic lenses. The unfortunate result for our political system is gridlock and an inability to compromise to accomplish reasonable laws and policies that are supported by most Americans rather than just one side. Perhaps even more unfortunate has been the inability of Americans to speak to each other constructively, if at all, about politics without name-calling, labeling, or abiding by a modicum of civility, particularly on social media.
The result of weak political parties for Congress and weak partisan leadership has been quite significant. Congress has become more decentralized as the power of the old committee chairs has been greatly weakened. Representatives are often beholden to their own districts or special interests and lobbyists more than their political party. How many people would seriously argue that Speakers of the House John Boehner or Paul Ryan could control the members of their own party? They were party leaders who struggled to contain the more ideologically-driven members of their party as much as they contended against the rival party within Congress and in the White House.
The ironic solution for gridlock in Congress and an inability to compromise for the common good may be the strengthening of political parties rather than decreasing their influence. However, with the rise of television, the internet, YouTube, and Twitter over the past fifty years and structural changes that challenged the organization and strength of parties (not to mention increasing distrust in party institutions), it does not seem that parties will recover and that our ideological polarization may continue and even increase.
Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.