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Senator Lugar’s Loss in an Age of Partisan Rancor

Former Democratic U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (left) and U.S. Senator Richard Lugar at a Bicentennial Spaso Discussion Forum.

Former Democratic U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (left) and U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, Moscow, 2007. Senator Lugar has been known for bipartisan problem solving, such as the successful Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

On Tuesday, Senator Richard Lugar, a six-term Senator from Indiana, lost the Republican primary to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Earlier this week, Chris Cilliza at The Fix, who will be speaking at a Miller Center forum on Friday, May 18, asserted that Senator Lugar could have taken steps to avert loss, but he was unable or unwilling to change his campaign tactics and rhetoric. Other analysts have also argued that Senator Lugar simply lost touch with his electoral base.  Senator Lugar used his concession speech, which Ezra Klein at the Washington Post called “searing,” to contribute to the discourse on partisan cleavages and what it means for governance.

Many scholars have noted that partisan rancor is not just a current phenomenon. Director of the Miller Center’s Democracy and Governance Studies Sidney M. Milkis has argued that every major transformation in American politics, beginning with the contest between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans, has included intense partisanship.

For a brief illustration, check out this video, “The History of American Politics in Two Minutes,” which uses Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal's DW-NOMINATE procedure to illustrate the ideological locations of members of Congress and partisan coalitions from the 1st Congress to the (current) 112th Congress. 

In March, the Miller Center also held a forum on this timely topic with University of Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt. In the embedded clip, Haidt addresses the periodization of the of polarization and its sources, including factors such as the complex realignment of parties, the decline of civic responsibility and good citizens, and the segregation of citizens into “lifestyle enclaves” where they no longer live around people who share differing views.

However, there is much debate about the sources of partisan polarization. In his concession speech, Senator Lugar placed the blame squarely on legislators and partisan groups:  

Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint…Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise.

Sources of partisan polarization have also been debated in the American Politics scholarly literature increasingly over the last few years.  Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams and others have argue that polarization is an elite-level phenomenon. The electorate only appears polarized because of the choices they are given and polarization of electoral choices is a result of movement by the candidates.

In a recent article in PS: Political Science and Politics, “‘The Big Sort” That Wasn’t: A Skeptical Reexamination,” Abrams and Fiorina also question the empirics of geographic sorting in the electorate and argue that even if this type of sorting were proved to occur, the effects would be minimal. Alan Abromowitz and others have challenged the arguments that polarization is only an elite level phenomenon. In his new book released in March, Abramowitz argues that bi-partisanship remains elusive, not because of politicians in the capitol, but because of the American public and their fixation on party membership and loyalty.

Barbara Sinclair takes perhaps what one might call a more middle-of-the-road approach, asserting that polarization has electoral roots, but also that the reactions to members of Congress have amplified the effect of polarization in the electoral environment. She argues in part that polarization is rooted in the Southern regional realignment post-1960s, but that there has also been party sorting outside of the South as a result of the emergence of cultural issues, particularly since the Reagan administration.

In line with Senator Lugar’s observations about activist groups, Sinclair finds that candidates have become more responsive to activists, and that candidates themselves come from the activist ranks. This is important because activists are more polarized, particularly on issues (e.g. abortion, climate change, taxes, etc.). Mathew Levendusky also takes a moderate position between the competing arguments outlined above, arguing that elite polarization has transformed voters by causing them to adopt the ideological outlook of their party elites, a process which he refers to as sorting. (There have been other exemplar contributions to this debate, but unfortunately space is limited to cover all such contributions in this blog post.)


Perhaps just as critical as understanding the sources of partisan rancor is understanding its implications for democratic governance. Senator Lugar asserted that it is “not conducive to problem solving and governance.” If it prevails, the government “will remain mired in the dysfunction.” He warned, “Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.” Lugar further noted the implications of the hardening of party positions on issues: 

I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.

Looking once again at the scholarly literature, there is also a divide on consequences of partisan cleavages. Some—such as Abramowitz, Sinclair, and Levendusky—have pointed to positive outcomes, including more meaningful choices for the electorate between the parties, parties that are more attentive to their bases, higher voter turnout in elections, and greater engagement in campaign activism. Others—such as Fiorina, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein—have highlighted negative affects of polarization including increased disaffection from and less trust in government, subordinated institutional integrity, decreased policy effectiveness, and a decline in unbiased information. Regardless of the interpretation about the effects of partisan cleavage with which one might most agree, questions we need to continually and collectively debate are how to achieve responsible parties sans partisan rancor and how to restore some modicum of civility to politics. Here, I would assert that political elites and the electorate equally have a civic duty to contribute to the discourse. 

Date edited: 05/10/2012 (12:55PM)


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