Simon Jackman quoting a press item on a former student, Sean Theriault, notes that the US “Congress is the most polarized it has been in a century.”
A quote from Theriault states that “The electoral campaign has infiltrated the legislative process.”
Interesting choice of words, there–infiltrating. As Larry Bartels suggests in a comment to Jackman’s blog post:
Incidentally, here is the question on political parties from this yearâ€™s American Politics qualifying exam at Princeton: â€œIn 1950, American political scientists wanted a more responsible two-party system. Now they have it. How have they reacted? What light does recent scholarship shed on the empirical assertions and normative commitments animating earlier scholarly writing on political parties and the American party system?â€
The rest of Bartels’ comment suggests that if one were to answer the question, one would focus on, among other things, changes (if any) on the ability of presidents to get their way, as well as the tendency for party-line voting in congress.
I agree that these are among the best indicators of whether the US has reached something like ‘responsible party government’ (and whether, if so, it might be here to stay). However, I do not accept the premise of the question: that the US indeed has now what (some) political scientists in 1950 wanted, a responsible 2-party system.
If the â€œbailoutâ€ vote didnâ€™t reveal what 6 years of single-party control already should have made clear, let me give it a try: The US, even at its peak of party polarization and executive-legislative constituency overlap,1 does not have a â€˜responsibleâ€™ party system. Under the imaginary import of the idealized UK system, it would make no sense that â€˜earmarksâ€™ would go up precisely under partisan polarization and unified government. Nor would it make sense that the leaders of the parties (who in any case would not need to bargain with one another under a UK-style â€˜responsibleâ€™ 2-party system) could not deliver sufficient support on a critical piece of â€˜emergencyâ€™ legislation until they spread around copious amounts of pork.
The party system that has emerged in the last decade or so is the worst of both worlds: More frequent party-line voting (but notâ€“refreshingly!â€“ on the bailout), yet rampant ducking for cover through district- and interest-group-focused amendments for which a single ruling party as a whole canâ€™t be held responsible. I am pretty sure that is not what the 1950 APSA committee had in mind. And I am just as sure that what they had in mind is out of step with the institutional structure of the system they were attempting to graft it on to.
[The last two paragraphs are from my comment to Jackman's blog post.]
- Here I am referring to the concept of Electoral Fusion of Purpose, which is an indicator of the extent to which executive and legislative candidates (or lists) get their electoral support from the same geographical constituencies. The index maxes out at 1.00, with total overlap. If it were 0 (and empirically it never is, only rarely falling below .5) it would mean that all of the president’s votes came from places the legislators of the party got no votes, and vice versa. For US Republicans in 2004, the Fusion index reached .915 (and Democrats .885). By contrast, in 1964, both parties were around .6 and even as recently as 1980, they were under .8. (Electoral Fusion of Purpose is a theme of one chapter of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Parties, by David J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart (Cambridge, forthcoming). [↩]