Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making

Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making

by Barbara Sinclair

NOOK Book(eBook)

$11.99 $19.95 Save 40% Current price is $11.99, Original price is $19.95. You Save 40%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
LendMe® See Details
Want a NOOK ? Explore Now


Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making by Barbara Sinclair

Party Wars is the first book to describe how the ideological gulf now separating the two major parties developed and how today’s fierce partisan competition affects the political process and national policy.

Barbara Sinclair traces the current ideological divide to changes in the Republican party in the 1970s and 1980s, including the rise of neoconservativism and the Religious Right. Because of these historical developments, Democratic and Republican voters today differ substantially in what they consider good public policy, and so do the politicians they elect.

Polarization has produced institutional consequences in the House of Representatives and in the Senate—witness the majority party’s threat in 2004–2005 to use the “nuclear option” of abolishing the filibuster. The president’s strategies for dealing with Congress have also been affected, raising the price of compromise with the opposing party and allowing a Republican president to govern largely from the ideological right. Other players in the national policy community—interest groups, think tanks, and the media—have also joined one or the other partisan “team.”

Party Wars puts all the parts together to provide the first government-wide survey of the impact of polarization on national politics. Sinclair pinpoints weaknesses in the highly polarized system and offers several remedies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806185019
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/03/2012
Series: Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture Series , #10
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Barbara Sinclair was Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is the author of Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress.

Read an Excerpt

Party Wars

Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making

By Barbara Sinclair


Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8501-9



The Development of the Partisan Congress

How did the congressional parties of the Rayburn-McCormack-Albert era—the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s—become over the course of one generation, less than three decades, the congressional parties of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay? In the early 1970s, congressional parties were so uncohesive that many members of Congress voted more frequently with the opposition than with their own party colleagues; parties were so weak that respected commentators—David Broder, specifically—spoke of "the party being over." Yet by the 1990s, congressional Democrats and Republicans seemed to be segregated into hostile camps with very different and often diametrically conflicting ideas of what constitutes good public policy. Decision making in committee and on the floor now typically pits Republicans against Democrats. In the House, where that is possible, the majority party largely excludes the minority party from a meaningful role in legislating. Harsh exchanges, if not exactly name calling, are far from rare. The majority calls the cops on the minority.

How did this transformation come about?


Sam Rayburn, a long-serving and highly respected Speaker of the House, used to instruct new members on his prescription for success: to get along, go along. By the early 1970s, the placid decade of the 1950s, Rayburn's heyday, was long gone. The cocoon of good feeling that enveloped Capitol Hill into the 1960s, according to Clem Miller, a member from 1959 to 1962, had been at least punctured by the battles over civil rights and then the Vietnam War. Yet to a considerable extent, the folkways and traditional modes of doing things persisted. Civility was the norm off and on the floor of the chambers. Members addressed one another as "the distinguished gentleman" and, as Speaker John McCormack explained, if they really didn't like each other as "the very distinguished gentleman." The floors of the chambers were forums of great decorum with never a hostile or pejorative phrase aimed at another member.

Certainly there were policy battles, but these were as likely to split members across as along party lines. In the 91st Congress (1969–70), for example, majorities of Democrats and Republicans voted on opposing sides on less than 30 percent of recorded House votes and on 36 percent of Senate votes. And even on those votes that pitted the parties against each other, members voted with their party colleagues only about 70 percent of the time. Party members, especially members of the majority Democratic Party, disagreed with one another on a great many issues—from civil rights to labor legislation, environmental issues, and the Vietnam War.

Friendships were about as likely to form across the aisle as within the party. After all, members of a party seldom met as such; Democrats, for example, held a caucus meeting of all House Democrats only once every two years at the beginning of a new Congress. And this meeting was largely devoted to ratifying organizational decisions actually made elsewhere. Members spent most of their time in committee and might well strike up close friendships there with opposition party members. Why not? Committees seldom split along partisan lines. Even the party leaders had cordial relationships with each other. Speaker Rayburn and Minority Leader Joe Martin were close friends. As late as the speakership of Tip O'Neill, O'Neill and Republican Leader Bob Michel were regular golfing buddies.

Fast forward to the 1990s. The cocoon of good feeling had been replaced by overt partisan hostility. Republicans accused Democrats of tyranny and corruption, of having created a "corrupt legislative process," of "trampling on minority rights ... and stifling dissent." A backbench Republican brought down a Democratic Speaker with such accusations and was rewarded by his party colleagues with the second-ranking leadership position. (This was, of course, Newt Gingrich; and he would eventually be severely damaged by similar no-holds-barred attacks by Democrats.) Partisan antagonism ran so high that it spilled over onto the floor, where according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, the rate of "name calling" and "vulgarity usage" skyrocketed. And such studies do not even capture much of the antagonism on the floor and in committee. Early in the Clinton Administration, Dick Armey, then Republican Conference chairman, referred to Clinton as "your president." What members said about the other party off the floor was a good deal more incendiary.

Policy debates and voting alignments split along rather than across party lines. In the 104th Congress (1995–96), for example, two-thirds of the recorded votes in the House and Senate were party votes pitting a majority of Republicans against a majority of Democrats, and on those votes, the average Republican voted with party colleagues more than 90 percent of the time, while the average Democrat did so about 85 percent of the time. Members spent much more of their time with fellow party members; each of the party groups met at least weekly, and in addition members often worked on single-party task forces with their party colleagues. The House party leaders were golf buddies no more; in fact, they seldom spoke. Gingrich and Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader, reportedly spoke personally only eight times in four years.

Table 1.1 and figure 1.1 provide a systematic look at how congressional voting changed. Table 1.1 shows the percentage of all recorded votes on which a majority of Democrats voted against a majority of Republicans—what Congress watchers call party votes. It was low in the 1970s; on about two-thirds of recorded votes in the House and three-fifths in the Senate, majorities of Republicans and Democrats voted on the same side—either there was little controversy or members split along regional, ideological, or constituency-interest lines rather than party lines. In the House, party voting went up significantly in the 1980s and then further in the 1990s. In the Senate most of the increase occurred in the 1990s, to a level about as high as in the House.

A problem with party votes as indicators of partisan polarization is that they classify significantly different situations together; 90 percent of Democrats voting against 90 percent of Republicans constitutes a party vote, but so does 51 percent of Democrats voting against 51 percent of Republicans. Yet the level of partisanship is obviously very different in the two cases. We can calculate the frequency with which the average member of each party voted with his or her party colleagues to get a better sense of how cohesive the parties are. Since 1991, members of Congress have voted with their party colleagues between 85 and 90 percent on average. When we talk about party voting in the 1990s and beyond, we are really talking about almost all Republicans lined up in opposition to almost all Democrats.

These party voting scores can be used to construct a measure of the difference or distance between the parties. If on average 85 percent of Democrats voted against 90 percent of Republicans on party votes, then on average 10 percent of Republicans voted with the 85 percent of Democrats, and the difference between these figures (75 = 85 – 10) provides an indicator of the distance between the parties. Figure 1.1 depicts this measure for the House and the Senate over time. Clearly the distance has increased greatly in both chambers; that is, as the number of party votes increased, so did the cohesion of the parties on these votes. Note also that the House and Senate track each other closely; the increase in partisanship is not a one-chamber phenomenon. This becomes important when explanations for polarization are considered.

Still another perspective on what happened is provided by the Poole-Rosenthal DW-nominate scores. These scores, which are based on all non-unanimous recorded votes, can be interpreted as locating members of Congress on a left-right dimension, and hence as a kind of ideology score. By ideology, here and throughout this book, I mean a consistent pattern of voting behavior that I assume is a function of the policy preferences of the member's constituency, of the member's personal policy preferences, and, though to a lesser extent, of other member goals, such as influence. That is, and most relevant here, ideology as measured by roll call voting is public behavior and can be seen as a reflection of members' (public) legislative preferences; it cannot be interpreted as a privately held "true" preference, though I do assume that members' true preferences, along with the other factors mentioned, influence their public behavior, their expressed preferences.

Figure 1.2 depicts the difference between the two parties' median scores and as such is a measure of the ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans. The figure clearly tells much the same story as the party voting figure; the parties in both chambers have diverged ideologically. The typical Democrat and the typical Republican are much more dissimilar now, much further apart in their voting behavior, than they were thirty years ago.

Figure 1.3 shows the distribution of House members' and senators' DW-nominate scores in selected Congresses between the late 1960s and the early 2000s. These distributions depict the points I have already made: in the earlier Congresses, the typical Democrat and the typical Republican in both chambers were closer to each other, and each party's membership was quite spread out or heterogeneous in its voting patterns. By the 103rd Congress (1993–94) and even more so by the 107th (2001–2002), Republicans and Democrats were much further apart and each party's membership had grown considerably more similar or homogeneous.

Note especially the extent to which in the earlier Congresses, members of the two parties overlap in their voting behavior. In the 91st House and Senate, a considerable number of Democrats fell toward the conservative end of the continuum and a fair number of Republicans toward the liberal end. Now, by contrast, there is almost no overlap between the parties; the most conservative Democrat is to the left of almost all Republicans, and conversely, the most liberal Republican is to the right of almost all Democrats. The one Republican to the left of the mean score for all House members in the 107th Congress, Connie Morella, who represented a liberal district in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., was defeated by a Democrat in the 2002 elections; the Democrat who was furthest to the right in the 107th—Ralph Hall of Texas—switched to the Republican Party in March 2004, in the middle of the 108th Congress. In the 108th, Hall was the only Democrat to the right of the most liberal Republican, and he was a Democrat for only about half of that Congress. In the Senate, the only Democrat to the right of any Republicans was Zell Miller of Georgia, who is no longer in the Senate; according to the DW-nominate scores, Miller was more conservative than four moderate Republicans—Olympia Snow and Susan Collins of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Within each of the parties, then, members have become considerably more similar in their legislative preferences as measured by these ideology scores and by party voting scores; and, according to the same measures, the difference between the legislative preferences of the members of the two parties has greatly increased.


If the congressional parties of the 1990s and early twenty-first century are internally more homogeneous ideologically and also ideologically more distant from each other than they were thirty years ago, why did this happen? Political science does not yet have a consensus explanation, though elements of one are emerging. The full story is seemingly fairly complicated, and in assembling it, scholars may well differ, at least in emphasis.

My explanation is a story in which voters, political activists, and politicians (including members of Congress) all play significant roles. I proceed from the assumption that members of Congress—and other elected politicians as well—respond to and try to please those in their environment who significantly affect whether they will get what they want. What do members of Congress want? Following Fenno, I argue that members have multiple goals; they want reelection, influence in their chamber and perhaps in the wider Washington political community, and good public policy. Most members, I contend, do care about policy, and many also want to attain influence. However, as reelection is a prerequisite for the realization of a member's other goals, electoral considerations take priority in a member's calculus when they are seriously at issue.

In this chapter I focus on the external, mostly electoral, roots and engines of congressional partisan polarization. In chapter 3, I argue that House members' reactions have channeled and amplified the effects of changes in the electoral environment.

Realignment in the South

The best-known part of the story, and the part on which everyone largely agrees, has to do with change in the South. In the 1950s there were almost no Republicans elected to the House from what was then called the solid South—the states of the old Confederacy minus the border state of Tennessee. And there were zero senators (see figure 1.4). John Tower was the first Republican elected to the Senate from the states of the old Confederacy in the twentieth century, and his election was something of a fluke. When Lyndon B. Johnson became vice president in 1961, a special election was called to replace him in the Senate. The huge number of Democrats running split the vote and enabled Tower, the sole Republican, to finish first in the free-for-all initial election; in the runoff, Texas liberals refused to support the extremely conservative Democrat who had finished second, and Tower won the seat.

The first time the number of House Republicans broke into the double digits—and there were approximately one hundred southern representatives—was in the mid-1960s. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative who had voted against the act, significant numbers of southerners began to break away from their long-standing loyalty to the Democratic Party. Although Johnson won by a landslide nationally, Goldwater carried four Deep South states, and Republicans picked up seven new House seats in the South, for a net gain of five and a total of twelve seats. In 1966, Republicans won twenty seats. Yet, despite these breakthroughs, Democrats continued to predominate in Congress through the 1970s.

Contrast that with the situation now. Republicans have constituted considerably more than half of the House members and of the senators from the South since the 104th Congress elected in 1994. In the 104th, four of the ten southern states had majority Republican House delegations; in the 108th and 109th (2003–2006), seven of the ten did, and one was evenly split. Only Arkansas consistently elects more Democrats than Republicans to the House. The 2004 elections reduced the number of Democratic senators from the South to four and increased the number of Republicans to sixteen.

Since most southern Democrats were on the conservative end of their party, when a Republican replaced a southern Democrat in Congress, the result was to make the congressional Democratic Party less conservative and, as these southern Republicans were often highly conservative, to make the congressional Republican Party more conservative. Sean Theriault and Michael McDonald and Bernard Grofman in separate studies estimate that about a third of the increase in partisan polarization between the early 1970s and the late 1990s is due to the replacement of southern Democrats by Republicans.

A major party realignment occurred in the South; the region went from almost totally Democratic—in voter allegiance (party identification), in voter behavior, and in congressional representation—to an increasing Republican advantage. In the 1950s and before, almost everyone in the South thought of himself or herself as a Democrat; according to the 1952 National Election Study, 79 percent of native white southerners identified themselves as Democrats and only 9 percent as Republicans. Few Blacks could vote, and turnout among whites was low; most whites who did vote were conservative, and the result was the election of predominantly conservative Democrats to Congress. And, of course, these members—and most of their voting constituents—were especially conservative on the issue of race.


Excerpted from Party Wars by Barbara Sinclair. Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Tables,
List of Figures,
Foreword, by Carl B. Albert,
1. From Sam Rayburn to Newt Gingrich: The Development of the Partisan Congress,
2. The Republican Party Moves Right: Right-Wing Intellectuals and Evangelical Christians Transform the Republican Party,
3. The Internal Engines of Partisan Polarization: The House in the Democratic Era,
4. The Internal Engines of Partisan Polarization: The Republican House,
5. Unorthodox Lawmaking in the Hyperpartisan House,
6. Partisan Polarization, Individualism, and Lawmaking in the Senate,
7. The President and Congress in a Polarized Environment,
8. Filibuster Strategies and PR Wars: Strategic Responses to the Transformed Environment,
9. From Fluid Coalitions to Armed Camps: The Polarization of the National Political Community,
10. The Consequences of Partisan Polarization: The Bad, the Ugly, and—the Good?,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews