• Harriet Ireland

Is the era of bipartisanship over?

Donald Trump spent the first half of this year’s State of the Union address advocating for unity amongst Democrats and Republicans. He urged his fellow politicians to “govern not as two parties, but as one nation” and stipulated that “together we can break decades of political stalemate.” [1] It is this political stalemate that has increasingly framed the last fifty years of American politics and is beginning to dominate the political landscape in Washington. [2] But is this bipartisan yearning realistic or just political rhetoric? With a compromise reached over government spending for the next year it could be seen by the American people as a rare moment of cooperation between the two main parties, who have spent the first months of 2019 in deadlock. However, the announcementof a national emergency by President Trump at the same time as signing the new budget clearly demonstrates that partisanship prevails as the norm in this era. Political polarisation has percolated down to all aspects of the political system and in recent years begun to dictate the way politics is presented to the American people in the media.

Historically American politics was not always so divisive. In the 1960s tensions were charged across America and there was both a racial and geographical divide in the politics and society of the time, but congress was actually very bipartisan. 27 Republican senators and 136 Republican congressmen crossed the aisle to support the Democrats to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and followed suit with the Voting Rights Act a year later. Not only was Congress more bipartisan with legislation, the physical make up of members was more bipartisan too. As seen in figure one the 93rdCongress from 1973-74 was far more ideologically cohesive than the 112thCongress (2011-12), where there was no frequent ideological overlap between the two parties. Bar a handful of pieces of legislation in the intervening years that gained cross-party support, partisanship in American politics has been increasing since the 1970s, causing gridlock in the legislative political system.

Source: Pew Research Center
Figure 1 Ideological Breakdown of 93rd Congress and 112th Congress

Whilst the partisanship of Congress means they have generated less legislation per congress on average, this partisanship is often more problematic for the president. [3] Obama frequently lamented the inaction of Congress, especially more so after both chambers fell to the Republicans in 2014. He turned to ruling by what he called the “pen and the phone”. [4] This meant that he resorted to governing by executive orders in order to bypass congressional approval, which allowed him to get some things done, but only to a limited degree and not on substantive issues. Moreover, executive orders can easily be overturned by future administrations as seen with Trump’s repealing of many of Obama’s orders. [5] President Trump has had similar problems to his predecessor resorting to passing much of his immigration policy via executive power such as his Muslim travel ban and child separation at the border. Governing in such a way that forces one of the branches of government to bypass another fundamentally goes against the foundations of the American political system, namely checks and balances.

Since the 1980s this partisanship has been reinforced by the electoral system. [6] An increase in the salience of social issues such as abortion, gun rights and universal health care has created a geographical party divide. America is now split into Democratic blue states and Republican red states, with a limited number of purple or swing states determining electoral outcomes, giving people in those state an unfair influence over the system. The winner-takes-all method reaffirms the need for parties to come down strongly on either side of the spectrum when it comes to policy positioning, forcing citizens into a left or right camp. This divisive attitude then filters into how legislation is created with representatives not daring to cooperate in order to please their party base and voters at home.

Current Electoral Map

The electoral landscape has reaffirmed the political landscape creating a never-ending cycle. However, this partisanship goes beyond the political arena and has dissipated down into the media. Whilst statistically the contemporary media landscape is not actually that partisan, as entertainment and sport are still neutrally reported and the most popular forms of news, those who absorb political or current affairs news do so in a partisan manner. [7] The ability to personalise your news feed to cater towards your ideological lean has meant that those most invested in political news create echo-chambers for themselves. Whereby the news they read confirms their already polarised views and leads media providers to tailor their news to partisan audiences. This is dangerous as it can lead to warped views of the world, where those on the extremes of the political spectrum are not exposed to their opponents’ views. However, more worryingly those on the far-right are increasingly exposed to fake news and inaccurate facts, and within an isolated landscape there is no avenue by which these falsities can be rectified which in turn goes against the fundamental function of the media to inform the public in order to foster stronger democracy.

Can America do as Trump asks and seize this as a new opportunity in American politics or is bipartisanship a pipe dream? The current political and electoral landscape does not lend itself to bipartisan change. Whilst politicians will continue to cooperate on issues such as defence and infrastructure the real divisions at the centre of American society will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future. To change the contemporary landscape, one would have to depolarise both the electoral and political system. Coupled with a change in the media’s presentation of the news in a non-partisan way, to encourage the electors and elected to change their core aims. However, bipartisanship is also increasingly threatened by the courts, which with Republican nominated justices just reaffirm the partisan decisions of Congress. Therefore, with all levels of the American political system cloaked in partisanship, a future of cooperation looks unlikely.




Figure 1 - http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2014/06/FT_14.06.13_congressionalPolarization.png




[6] Hopkins, David A., Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

[7] Prior, Markus. 2011. “Audience Fragmentation and Political Inequality in the Post-Broadcast Media Environment.” In Doris A. Graber (ed.), Media Power in Politics. Washington, DC: CQ Press. pp. 153-164.

At the time of writing, Harriet Ireland is a third year student at the University of Edinburgh, currently on a year abroad at The George Washington University in D.C. She is studying History and Politics. Areas that interest her the most are US politics and UK foreign relations.