Why Washington Won't Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis

Why Washington Won't Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis

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Why Washington Won't Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis by Marc J. Hetherington, Thomas J. Rudolph

Polarization is at an all-time high in the United States. But contrary to popular belief, Americans are polarized not so much in their policy preferences as in their feelings toward their political opponents: To an unprecedented degree, Republicans and Democrats simply do not like one another. No surprise that these deeply held negative feelings are central to the recent (also unprecedented) plunge in congressional productivity. The past three Congresses have gotten less done than any since scholars began measuring congressional productivity.
In Why Washington Won’t Work, Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolph argue that a contemporary crisis of trust—people whose party is out of power have almost no trust in a government run by the other side—has deadlocked Congress. On most issues, party leaders can convince their own party to support their positions. In order to pass legislation, however, they must also create consensus by persuading some portion of the opposing party to trust in their vision for the future. Without trust, consensus fails to develop and compromise does not occur. Up until recently, such trust could still usually be found among the opposition, but not anymore. Political trust, the authors show, is far from a stable characteristic. It’s actually highly variable and contingent on a variety of factors, including whether one’s party is in control, which part of the government one is dealing with, and which policies or events are most salient at the moment.

Political trust increases, for example, when the public is concerned with foreign policy—as in times of war—and it decreases in periods of weak economic performance. Hetherington and Rudolph do offer some suggestions about steps politicians and the public might take to increase political trust. Ultimately, however, they conclude that it is unlikely levels of political trust will significantly increase unless foreign concerns come to dominate and the economy is consistently strong.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226299358
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/14/2015
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Marc J. Hetherington is professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Why Trust Matters and coauthor, with Jonathan D. Weiler, of Authoritarianism andPolarization in American Politics. Thomas J. Rudolph is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and coauthor of Expression vs. Equality.

Read an Excerpt

Why Washington Won't Work

Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis

By Marc J. Hetherington, Thomas J. Rudolph

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-29935-8


Why Extreme Leaders Don't Listen to a Moderate Public

We face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. — Barack Obama, 2010 State of the Union Address

American politics is dysfunctional. With no ideological overlap left between the parties and moderates going the way of the dinosaur (e.g., Theriault 2008), cross-party compromises on important matters are increasingly rare. Unlike congressional representatives, American citizens are moderate, if ideological at all (e.g., Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2005). Why, then, do citizens continue to allow their representatives to do such a poor job representing them? That is what this book is about. We endeavor to explain why the public has become an inert force in American politics. The short answer is that partisans whose party is out of power have almost no trust at all in a government run by the other side. This is a striking departure from the past. Absent this supply of trust, public consensus on issues rarely forms. Lawmakers, in turn, feel little pressure from their constituents to rise above their basest partisan instincts. Ultimately, little gets done, but partisans blame only the other side for the lack of productivity.

Recent events tell the story. While polarization in Washington has been high, congressional productivity has been low. The 112th and 113th Congresses, which served from 2011 to 2014, were the least productive ones since scholars began to measure congressional productivity in the 1940s (Binder 2014; Terkel 2012). Mark Twain aphorisms notwithstanding, unproductive political institutions can be costly. Since 1917, Congress and the president have agreed nearly one hundred times, mostly without incident, to increase the country's ability to borrow money for obligations already incurred. In the 2010s, however, the routine became anything but. With Republicans ascendant after sweeping midterm victories in 2010 and congressional parties as polarized as any time in the last one hundred years, Congress and the president repeatedly failed to reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling. As a result, one of the three major credit rating agencies downgraded US debt, a stunning and — to that point — unthinkable outcome.

Over the next two years, these partisan clashes continued, with an increasing price tag to the American public. First came the sequestration of $85.4 billion during the 2013 fiscal year. Sequestration included a mandatory 7.9 percent cut in the defense budget, a 5.3 percent cut in discretionary domestic spending, and a 2 percent cut in Medicare. These across-the-board cuts, especially damaging during fragile economic times, were actually designed the year before to be so odious that the prospect of implementing them would force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on spending cuts and revenue increases. Yet in the polarized environment inside the Beltway, compromise never emerged, and an economically injurious policy was enacted by default. In the fall of 2013, partisan brinksmanship over funding Obamacare, the federal budget, and the need to again increase the debt ceiling led to a sixteen-day government shutdown, the first in seventeen years. Its economic costs were high. Standard and Poor's estimated that the shutdown cost the economy about $24 billion, reducing projections for gross domestic product (GDP) growth from 3 percent to 2.4 percent. The Council of Economic Advisors estimated that the shutdown cost about 120,000 jobs as well. Although Congress eventually did agree on a debt limit increase just hours before the country would have defaulted, political dysfunction carried tangible costs.

Ideologically committed congressional representatives are unlikely to depolarize on their own because they strongly believe that their approach is correct. Indeed, that is probably why most sought office in the first place (Aldrich 1995; Cohen et al. 2008). Furthermore, the minority party has strong incentives not to compromise when party margins in Congress are close (Lee 2009). What is puzzling is why the American public has sat idly by as the congressional parties, particularly the Republicans, have lurched toward ideological extremes. The electorate is uniquely positioned to force representatives toward the political center. Representatives need public support at election time, so they have incentives to listen to public opinion, particularly when the public is angry. And the public has been angry: congressional approval has registered consistently below 25 percent since 2010 and plummeted to 9 percent at the end of 2013. Yet the public has done little to rein in ideological and partisan excesses in Washington. Although the public's quiescence could be evidence that it is just as thirsty for ideological combat as members of Congress, public opinion surveys have repeatedly shown that the policy preferences of ordinary Americans, unlike those of Congress, are not particularly extreme (Fiorina et al. 2005; Clinton 2006; Bafumi and Herron 2010). This is quite a puzzle.

Why, then, do American citizens put up with — even reward — such excess? We argue that ordinary Americans are, in fact, increasingly polarized, just not in their policy preferences or ideology. Instead, we focus on the fact that partisans are now polarized in their feelings about their political opponents. Republicans and Democrats simply do not like each other to an unprecedented degree.

As an example of what we mean by a polarization of feelings, consider the response when, in September 2009, the Obama administration announced that the president would mark the new school year by giving a speech to students to challenge them "to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning" (Obama 2009). When people think about "hot button" issues that deeply divide Americans, neither education nor hard work is usually among them. Furthermore, a Department of Education spokeswoman made clear that the speech was not a policy address; its viewing would be entirely voluntary, with each individual school making a decision on whether to broadcast the speech during school hours. The ensuing furor must have taken the administration by surprise. It is perhaps not a shock that Republican officials took the president to task because that is, arguably, their job. For example, the president of the Florida Republican Party, Jim Greer, wrote a letter in which he charged that "President Obama has turned to American's [sic] children to spread his liberal lies, indoctrinating American's [sic] youngest children before they have a chance to decide for themselves" (Greer 2009).

But it was not only political leaders who had strong feelings about the president's speech; ordinary Americans did, too. Angry phone calls and letters poured into superintendents' offices across the country with parents threatening to keep their children home from school if Obama's address was aired. One Colorado parent, in tears, told CNN, "Thinking about my kids ... sorry ... in school having to listen to that just really upsets me. I'm an American. They are Americans, and I don't feel that's OK. I feel very scared to be in this country with our leadership right now." If this Colorado woman felt this strongly about her child simply being exposed to a video recording of a Democrat, we suspect she is going to place little pressure on her favored party leaders to compromise with that Democrat regardless of the issue.

It is important to note that negative feelings have not always run so deep. When, on September 8, President Obama made his speech, urging students to take responsibility for their education, no matter their circumstances, and to "get serious this year ... put your best effort into everything you do," many school districts, overwhelmed by parental complaints, opted not to share it. When George H. W. Bush addressed public school students in a similar fashion in 1991, however, it did not cause a stir.

Americans' strong, negative feelings about their political opponents have led to another, even more consequential, development in public opinion: the polarization of political trust. Political trust is critical because it helps create consensus in the mass public by providing a bridge between the governing party's policy ideas and the opinions of those who usually support the other party. Consensus is important because research tells us that policy makers respond to the wishes of the public when consensus develops (see, for example, Page, Shapiro, and Dempsey 1987). When both Republicans and Democrats (or liberals and conservatives) in the electorate support an item on the policy agenda, Congress and the president usually respond with laws.

We show again and again in this book that the recent polarization of political trust stands in the way of the emergence of public consensus on public policy. The reason is simple: people who distrust government are unwilling to make what we call "ideological sacrifices." For a conservative citizen to go along with a liberal policy idea like health care reform, for example, it requires him or her to sacrifice his or her general principles that smaller government is better government. For a liberal citizen to go along with a conservative policy idea like privatizing Social Security, it requires him or her to sacrifice his or her general principles that big government in this realm works. Those who trust government are apt to make ideological sacrifices. Those who distrust the government are not. Strong dislike and deep distrust of the governing party means that partisans from the out party in the electorate will not nudge their representatives toward compromises with the governing party.

To illustrate our thinking about trust and sacrifices, consider the following: Suppose that Harry and Louise, a newly married couple, wish to adopt a pet for their new home. Since they only have enough room for one, they must agree on which type. Louise is the proverbial "cat person." She grew up in an apartment with cats and assures Harry that they have a number of desirable qualities. Cats, she argues, are intelligent, independent, low maintenance, and keep rodents away. In short, Louise is predisposed to see the virtues of cat ownership. Harry, by contrast, is a "dog person." His family had a dog when he was a child. Dogs make better pets, he believes, because they are affectionate, playful, loyal, and protective. For Harry to agree to adopt a cat rather than a dog, he must be willing to sacrifice his own pet preferences. The same is true for Louise to go along with a dog adoption. If neither agrees to sacrifice, however, consensus will not develop, no adoption will occur, and there will be yet another lonely pet in the world. Both Harry and Louise are more likely to make such a sacrifice if they trust their partner's vision of what the future might hold. If they question this vision, or question each other's motives, they will not yield. And, in turn, they will not adopt.

Pet preferences are like ideological preferences. They may be strongly held, yet, under the right circumstances and with enough trust in one's negotiating partner, people can be persuaded to sacrifice them. As the following chapters will demonstrate, trust is most necessary to conservatives when asked to support a liberal policy initiative or to liberals when asked to support a conservative one. In both cases, political trust, if it exists, has the potential to dampen ideological conflict and forge policy consensus. Its absence ensures dissensus.

Considered in this way, trust can serve as a reservoir that policy makers draw on to cause those not ideologically predisposed to follow them to give their ideas a shot. That reservoir has run dry. As evidence, consider the following data. In 2010, we asked one thousand respondents a version of a trust-in-government question that has been asked by survey organizations since the 1950s. Our question read, "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right? Just about always, most of the time, only some of the time, or never?" During the first fifty years that survey researchers have asked this question, Republicans and Democrats have rarely differed by much. Democrats expressed a few percentage points more trust than Republicans did under a Democratic president and Republicans expressed a few percentage points more trust than Democrats did under a Republican president (Hetherington 2005).

That tendency toward slight partisan differences has changed fundamentally of late. In figure 1.1, we have broken down the distribution of responses to our 2010 survey by party identification. The findings are remarkable. A stunning 52 percent of Republicans reported that they "never" trusted the government in Washington to do what is right. Another 46 percent said they trusted it "only some of the time." A vanishingly small 2 percent reported trusting the government "most of the time," and not one Republican identifier said he or she trusted government "just about always." If we are correct that trusting, out-party partisans are the bridge to overcoming partisan gridlock, these results make clear that the bridge has washed away. The absence of trust among Republicans all but eliminates the development of public consensus. Instead, Republicans in the electorate will do what comes naturally: follow the cues of Republicans in Washington and oppose everything that Democrats propose. Without consensus, public opinion will not nudge representatives toward moderation and compromise. Instead, the public will reinforce polarization in Washington. In short, the polarization of political trust has rendered an ideologically moderate (or perhaps nonideological) mass public an inert force in overcoming polarization in Washington. Without public trust in government, the lawmaking process in Washington has ground to a halt.

A Tale of Two First Terms

Contrasting the beginning of George W. Bush's presidency with the beginning of Barack Obama's helps illustrate the central importance of political trust to policy outcomes. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, political trust surged to levels not seen since the 1960s. In the month before the attacks, only 30 percent of Americans said they trusted the government to do what was right either "almost always" or "most of the time." Just a month later, 64 percent did. This reading was twenty points higher than any taken in the twenty-five years prior to the attacks. With trust remaining relatively high through his first term, Bush usually got what he wanted despite relatively narrow congressional majorities. For example, trust in government was important to securing public support for restrictions on civil liberties like the PATRIOT Act and other domestic security enhancements (Davis and Silver 2004) along with, as we show in this book, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see also Hetherington and Husser 2012).

Two things are important to understand here. First, political trust was very high during the early Bush years — stratospherically so right after 9/11. A key reason, which we detail in this book, is that politics was consumed by foreign affairs and war. Despite the fact that Americans often express little trust in the government as a whole, they actually like and trust certain parts of it. For example, almost everyone these days likes the military, which is part of the government, too. As a result, trust tends to be higher when foreign policy is salient and lower when more partisan domestic concerns that make use of less popular parts of the government are salient. When people evaluate the government's trustworthiness, that evaluation bears the imprint of the part of the government that is on their minds when they are asked about it.

The second thing that is important to understand is that, especially in 2002 and 2003, political trust had not yet polarized by party. With the focus on keeping the country safe from terror and fighting the popular part of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Democrats were very likely to say they trusted the government, too. For example, in 2002, 63 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of Democrats said they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right at least "most of the time." Historically speaking, these percentages are extremely high. As a result, broad public consensus existed for early Bush era policy changes. Many Democrats in Congress, some of whom had misgivings about the challenges to civil liberties embedded in the PATRTIOT Act, felt they needed to support it because their constituents did. Although people can debate the merits of the PATRIOT Act, the critical fact here is that consensus in public opinion helped nudge Congress, including some of its recalcitrant members, and the president toward policy change.


Excerpted from Why Washington Won't Work by Marc J. Hetherington, Thomas J. Rudolph. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1        Why Extreme Leaders Don’t Listen to a Moderate Public
Chapter 2        Polarization, Political Trust, and Institutional Responsiveness
Chapter 3        What Moves Political Trust
Chapter 4        How Political Trust Became Polarized
Chapter 5        How Priming Changes the Consequences of Political Trust
Chapter 6        Political Trust Can Help Conservatives, Too
Chapter 7        The Gordian Knot: A Bad Economy, Low Trust, and the Need for More Spending
Chapter 8        Political Trust and Flagging Support for Obamacare
Chapter 9        Can Things Change?
Chapter 10      Things Will Probably Get Better, but We Are Not Sure How


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