For politicians, voting with their party is a decent career choice, though it can cause a lot of political problems. Voting on every bill according to a politician’s party line helps secure their political career, easily signal their values to constituents and market themselves to interest groups and activists. With so many bills passing through committees, so many hearings and Congress moving along quickly with respect to the news and slowly with respect to legislation, there is convenience in working with the party line.
I learned from my experience this past summer as a legislative intern with Congressman Tim Murphy (R-Pennsylvania) that there is much more nuance to the decisions politicians make than just party loyalty. However, the bigger issues that make the loudest noise in the media are the ones that command party loyalty above all. There is still a significant amount of bipartisanship that occurs in committees and smaller legislation; however, the big issues matter, and it is a problem that we let devotion to party and lack of common understanding render our political system incapable of solving problems.
This partisan incapacity is fueled by the centralization within the federal government. America is not a small European country where people vote for parties rather than representatives themselves. Our country is vast and covers a diverse population in terms of ideas and demographics. Splitting these diverse backgrounds into two opposing parties who govern the exact votes of every legislator makes political transfers of power much more unstable and vitriolic.
Some analysts of the early United States emphasize how the U.S. was one of the first nations to achieve peaceful transitions between political powers. Part of the peacefulness of these transitions was due to the smaller population of the U.S. at the time. Today, our huge and diverse nation is too big for a two-party federal government. Our focus on the federal government glosses over local politics and solutions that are less partisan, and may be a contributing factor to the downfall of the American community and dialogue.
This increased centralization and partisanship has created a lack of public faith in political institutions. Our perpetual gridlock causes the public to be pessimistic about what our government can do. Popular government distrust exists in the far-right skinheads to the far-left socialists and communists. Similar distrust, though less severe, exists within more moderate ideologies as well. With a breakdown of trust in governmental institutions, we have allowed narratives of political revolution to take hold. The narratives of revolution invigorate extremists on both sides, increase partisanship and opportunism within our government.
What if people were to drop harsh partisanship, and allow their representatives on the federal level to compromise? Or better yet, embrace federalism and make some big issues not up to the federal government at all? A bipartisan compromise or devolution to state and local governments could lead to real action. Maybe our government would become less partisan if we reduce the federal government to the roles of regulating commerce between the states, foreign economic policy and declaring war.
Essentially, the problem fueling our intense partisanship is that we focus on the federal government to legislate on too many controversial issues rather than leaving it to the states. Many of the intense political vitriol visible in today’s politics would never have come to pass if so many federal programs were managed within the states. The transition of federal power with parties would be much more peaceful and amicable if the states handled big moral issues. Centralized power leads to centralized interests and the higher propensity for big problems.