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Why party lines don't capture what's interesting about US politics

Party polarization is overused as an explanation in American politics. That lens misses the outliers in both parties, who fall out on regional, demographic, and ideological lines. 

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    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walks down the center aisle that typically divides Republicans from Democrats in the US House of Representatives, before speaking to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
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Teagan Goddard asked the question, can politics be “unbundled” from political parties? In other words, if there is a market where we can unbundle phone and Internet service, why isn’t there a market to unbundle politics from parties? Hans Noel wrote an excellent piece describing how the electoral and governing process inherently bundles politics for us. It is a process that simplifies our system but also, in Noel’s piece, ties politics to the parties.

Both pieces are excellent reads with some great points. But at what point do we risk overstating parties’ influence on politics? A common, underlying thread to both these pieces assumes that “unbundled politics” – politics that is distinguishable, or not driven by, party politics – do not or cannot exist in American politics.

This strand of thought often glosses over how unbundled American politics actually is. Politics is about coalitions, but it’s not always about party coalitions. They are, without question, the dominant political coalitions and polarization is the defining narrative of our time. However, we often use these reasons as intellectual crutches and in the process we unfortunately obscure an important and nuanced understanding of representation, particularly in Congress.

There is a good reason political parties are the focus of most observers’ explanations. Falling back on parties as the “bundles” of politics works most of the time. To borrow an example from Hans Noel’s post, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is either something you like or something you don’t. Today, those that dislike the ACA are nonetheless forced to live with it. And often one’s partisan preference determines their opinion about the ACA, or vice versa. On the big votes, like those to enact the bill into law, political parties perfectly explain the divide on expanded health-care coverage.

But this black and white choice also oversimplifies the problem. What’s most troubling is it glosses over the geographic, demographic, and ideological differences that render a more rich and complex picture.

For example, millions of people dislike the ACA but also overwhelmingly support many of its provisions. On the other hand, several provisions are also unpopular on a bipartisan basis. Eighty-one Democrats, a full 42% of the House caucus, voted to block the individual mandate in 2011. A repeal of the medical device tax received 37 Democratic votes in the 113th Congress. Unsurprisingly, most members who voted against the ACA’s provisions represented more moderate districts.

Factors other than partisanship have divided and continue to divide members in Congress. The presence of two parties in Congress does not inevitably lead to partisan problems or issue breakdowns. Democrats frequently get the credit for civil rights legislation because they were in power when it passed. But Republicans supported civil rights legislation in the House and Senate in higher percentages than Democrats throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, an entire generation of Congress was defined by a majority party divided on major issues like civil rights, education policy, and energy regulation, just to name a few.

Today, despite better sorted partisan and ideological coalitions, we still observe these patterns. The majority party is divided on foreign trade, government spending policy, the deficit, government surveillance and privacy, the Export-Import Bank, immigration, prison reform, and the list goes on.

We may only have one president, one Congress, and two parties but that Congress and those parties are remarkably complex. The original FARRM bill vote in 2013 illustrated rural Democrats with farm heavy constituencies were willing to stomach more than $30 billion in cuts to SNAP, a major party priority. Congress is currently debating trade promotion authority (TPA) that, if enacted, would divide moderates in both parties from their less moderate co-partisans.

Votes that highlight demographic and ideological divisions within the parties are less common but nevertheless present. Today, it’s just harder for the ideological, geographic, and demographic outliers in each party to differentiate themselves. Leaders press for unity, not discord. As a result, outliers have a difficult time getting their time in the legislative sun. For example, it’s much harder for members like Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan receive the green light on his amendment that almost perfectly divided both parties. It happens. It is just much less frequent.

In other words, there is ample evidence that politics is already unbundled. Senators Harry Reid, Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, and Joe Manchin are all Democrats with high ratings from the NRA. Reps. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, Robert Dold of Illinois, Greg Walden of Oregon, Richard Hanna of New York are all Republicans who have taken pro-choice positions. On issues like banking regulation or energy policy, the list of elected officials breaking from their parties multiplies by at least three. They break from their parties for good reason. If they didn’t, they probably would not be in Congress.

America’s governing and electoral institutions have created strong incentives to toe the party line. The idea that “unbundled politics” do not or cannot exist glosses over the most interesting political and representational issues of our time. Today political parties explain a lot in the American political system. But at times its ubiquity is overstated. And unfortunately, this intellectual shortcut can undermine important examples that illustrate exactly how geographically, demographically, or ideologically diverse representation in Congress can be.

Joshua Huder publishes his Rule 22 blog at http://rule22.wordpress.com.

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