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Ungovernable America? The Jorde Symposium

Has the center in American politics disappeared? What caused the inertia and contempt that choke Congress today? What are the consequences of sustained or worsening polarization? Prof. Rick Pildes addressed these questions and more as part of the 2010 Jorde Symposium last week.

  • Kelly Williams
April 22, 2010

The Brennan Center Jorde Symposium:
“Ungovernable America? The Causes and Consequences of Polarized Democracy”

“Politics as partisan warfare: that is our world.”—Professor Rick Pildes, Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law, NYU School of Law

Has the center in American politics disappeared? What caused the inertia and contempt that choke Congress today? What are the consequences of sustained or worsening polarization? On April 14, Professor Rick H. Pildes of NYU School of Law addressed these and other questions in Part II of the 2009/2010 Brennan Center Jorde Symposium at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The event was co-hosted by the Program in Law and Public Affairs and three Princeton professors served as commentators – Paul Frymer, Nolan McCarty, and Sean Wilentz.

The Brennan Center Jorde Symposium is an annual event, created in 1996 to sponsor top scholarly discourse and writing from a variety of perspectives on issues central to the legacy of William J. Brennan, Jr. This year, Christopher Eisgruber, Provost of Princeton University, introduced the lecturer and commentators at Robertson Hall, home of the Woodrow Wilson School. 

Rick Pildes

Professor Pildes began his lecture by noting that the two major political parties are now farther apart ideologically than at any time in the last 100 years, as demonstrated by the radical differences in public perception of President Obama and the complete lack of bi-partisan support for the President’s two major policy initiatives, the stimulus plan and health care initiative. Professor Pildes argued against the assumption that incendiary individuals or a lack of politicians of sufficient character cause hyperpolarization – instead, he believes institutional structures and historical factors in our democratic system are the most likely source of escalating conflict. For example, closed primary elections (those open only to party members) tend to advance more extreme candidates and push centrists to the edges of their ideology. Similarly, Professor Pildes believes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by creating safe voting districts for minority voters in order to rectify years of underrepresentation, especially in the South, had the unintended effect over two generations of creating many safe districts for conservative white legislators, districts that are more ideologically coherent but also more polarized. Allowing legislators to gerrymander their own election districts (or, put another way, choose their voters) has had the effect of stocking districts with voters of one party or another. Finally, the concentration of power in the hands of party leaders in Congress has enabled leadership to impose in-line voting and resulted in a complete lack of bi-partisan cooperation. 

Professor Pildes offered little in the way of hope that significant changes in these institutions are forthcoming: though Congress has the authority under the Constitution to mandate open primaries for federal elections, state control over the primary system is historically entrenched. Other reforms might include allowing the Speaker of the House to be elected by the entire House, or empowering minority parties with oversight and audit functions. But leadership has little incentive to push through reforms that would disperse their influence. Professor Pildes ended by warning of the dangers of hyperpolarization: during times of one-party rule, there is little incentive for the legislative branch to check the executive. The failure of the legislative branch to brake President Bush’s national security strategy in the years after 2001 is an example of the mischief and damage that follow. In periods of divided government, impeachments, paralysis and gridlock may become the norm. 

Jorde panel

A unique feature of the Jorde Symposium is the participation of prominent expert commentators who give their remarks after the main lecture.

Paul Frymer began his comments by waxing nostalgic about the Responsible Party Model – the school of thought first espoused by Woodrow Wilson that political parties must act responsibly, meaning cooperatively. He agrees that it is not possible to trace the current level of polarization to individuals, and cited other historical factors, including the Republicans’ initiation of a southern strategy in the 1950’s and the rise of the Christian right in the 1960’s. Professor McCarty then offered hope that institutional structures that contribute to polarization might be subject to future moderating reforms: he argued that the Democratic Party, having lost a series of elections after adopting the primary process for the first time in 1972, in response instituted several changes over the years to help a more electable (i.e., centrist) candidate prevail, such as more open primaries and Super Tuesday. 

Nolan McCarty first presented a chart from his book, Polarized America, showing a steady climb of voting disunity in the House and Senate from the 1940’s to the present historic high rates. He argued that backing out the historical voting records of southern legislators does not substantially change the scale of the disunity, thus arguing against the southern realignment theory. Professor Nolan has also studied open primaries and gerrymandering – he cited evidence that the trend has been toward more open primaries over the past decades, with relatively stable levels of voter turnout. And, while agreeing that gerrymandering by legislators is an unpleasant fact of our modern democracy, he noted that the Senate has never been gerrymandered, serving as a good control, and has proven as equally polarized as the House. Analyzing the voting records of congressmen shows that increasing levels of polarization are the result of newly-elected legislators, not incumbents.  He ended by cautioning against the unintended consequences of many reforms: he believes that the two parties do have a moderating effect and reforms that open the process to more outside influences might lead to further radicalization. 

Sean Wilentz noted that polarized politics “is not what the framers had in mind, but it is what American democracy has become since the end of American Apartheid.”  The paradox, he pointed out, is that our hard-knuckle politics are a sign of a maturing democracy. But, he offered, there may be hope. “Gerrymandering is a drag,” he said, but it cannot completely prevent major shifts in power, such as those in 1964 and 2006. Similarly, though the Republicans won one national election after another “by exploiting the issues of welfare and crime,” Bill Clinton’s victory “ultimately broke the back of the Republican message.” Professor Wilentz cautioned against advocating more open primaries, which might weaken the party system and worsen partisanship, as “low-information voters” and extremists would surely gain influence. Finally, Professor Wilentz noted that extreme Republican politics of the past decades have left that party “lily-white,” and demographic trends surely benefit the Democrats. But, he cautioned, “never underestimate the ferocious talent of the Democratic party to squander opportunity.”

The Brennan Center named the Symposium in honor of its major benefactor Thomas M. Jorde, a former law clerk to Justice Brennan and Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall. The lecture and commentaries are published annually in the California Law Review [pdf].