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Why politicians won’t reach across the aisle

New book examines issues on why Congress is failing

Bad feelings about each other rather than competing ideologies keep Republicans and Democrats from encouraging their representatives to compromise and get things done, say the authors of a new book about why Washington won’t work.

“Deeply negative feelings cause more trouble than deep ideological differences would,” said Marc J. Hetherington, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “When you disagree with the other side on the issues, you can often find a middle ground. When you don’t like the other side, you don’t even talk to them.”

“Although citizens have it in their capacity to nudge officeholders toward compromise, they don’t trust their opponents enough to push their side’s representatives to compromise with those they increasingly view as the devil.”

That is the argument put forth in the new book Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust and the Governing Crisis (The University of Chicago Press) by Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolph.

The result is stagnation. The 112th and 113th Congresses, which served from 2011-14, were the least productive since scholars began to measure congressional productivity in the 1940s.

Distrust of the other side

Polls by the American National Election Studies (ANES) show that people’s feelings about their own party have remained steady over time. But their feelings about the other party are incredibly negative.

“Surveys show that our feelings about the party we do not identify with have never been more negative in the history of survey research,” Hetherington said.

“To put the Obama-era scores in perspective, consider that the average favorability scores that Republicans gave atheists and illegal immigrants in 2012 are significantly higher than what they gave the Democratic Party. Similarly, Democrats feel much better about Christian Fundamentalists, their frequent political adversaries, than they do the GOP.

“[rquote]Because of these negative feelings about the other side, the public reinforces polarization rather than nudging representatives toward compromise.”[/rquote]

That’s not to say that the public themselves are more partisan than ever. Although commentators sometimes claim it to be so, the evidence doesn’t back it up.

“According to data from the ANES, there are about the same percentage of strong partisans now as there were in the 1980s and 1990s,” Hetherington said. “In fact, there are fewer strong partisans now than there were in the 1950s and 1960s.”

When asked, roughly the same percentage of Americans say they are “moderate” as say they are “liberal,” “conservative” or even “haven’t thought enough about it.”

Voter turnout is up

Voters aren’t getting disgusted and turning away, either, Hetherington said.

“Turnout, for the most part, has been on the increase, not the decline,” Hetherington said. “This is not the behavior of an ideologically alienated group of people.”

Voters don’t mind sending ever more radical representatives to Congress, as long as they vote against the other party’s initiatives once they get there. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has built his recent career on that theory, Hetherington said.

“His unwillingness to compromise may not have succeeded in making Barack Obama a one-term president, as was his stated goal, but it did improve his political fortunes immensely,” Hetherington said. “He moved from being Senate Minority Leader with 41 seats in 2009 to being Senate Majority Leader with 54 seats in 2015.

“What a handsome payoff for being a political roadblock.”

How to end the standoff

Politicians earning trust from voters across party lines could end the standoff, Hetherington said.

“Absent trust, any bridges that form between the two sides are made of sand,” he said.

Hetherington’s co-author, Thomas J. Rudolph, is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.