Congressional Gridlock and the Salience of Public Opinion

congress and prez cartoon largeLast fall, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation hosted a discussion exploring the (then) recent federal government shutdown and the ever-souring relationship between the President and Congress. The talk, part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series, featured two renowned Harvard Kennedy School professors Thomas Patterson and David King. Patterson’s research explores the interaction between government and the media. King is a senior lecturer in Public Policy and chair of Harvard’s Bi-Partisan Program for Newly Elected Members of the U.S. Congress.

Certainly Patterson and King’s insights are as relevant today. In their talk, they explored the history of partisanship in Congress and its cyclical relationship with the President. Patterson and King also analyzed the relationship between political polarization among the general public and polarization within Congress. The following post by Enumale Agada discusses the conversation’s highlights.


By Enumale Agada

Democracy stops at the door of the United States Congress.

-Thomas Brackett

The question of what exactly leads to presidential greatness is an age-old one. There are some that subscribe to the school of thought that the presidency is an event-driven institution; how we remember a president is largely dictated by the events that took place during the presidency. Then there are others that believe that history,

rather than events, shapes the presidency. Kennedy School professor Tom Patterson counts himself among this group.

“[N]one of our institutions has had such varying characterizations as the presidency. I’m old enough to remember the Nixon presidency–that was the imperial presidency. Then you get to Ford and the Carter presidencies—we’ve got an imperiled presidency. We get Reagan, we’ve got a heroic presidency—that loops back to Kennedy and the heroic presidency of John F. Kennedy,” Patterson recounted at a talk as part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series.

For better or worse, Congress plays a large role in this presidential narrative. Lyndon B. Johnson is largely remembered as an effective president because of his ability to push legislation through Congress—a skill that he no doubt developed during his six years as Senate Majority Leader and his two years as Senate Majority Whip. In contrast, Jimmy Carter’s relationship with the then democratically-controlled Congress was strained (to put it mildly) and his presidency is widely remembered as a succession of disappointments and failures. So what does this mean for President Obama? How will his relationship with Congress and the federal government shutdown shape history’s characterization of his presidency?

Obama’s presidency could be characterized as the shrinking presidency, Patterson contends, a description that was also applied to President Clinton’s time in office. A 1993 TIME magazine article attributed Clinton’s shrinking presidency to the growing power of Congress and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. But what is the cause of Obama’s shrinking presidency? His difficult relationship with Congress is undoubtedly a factor and the shutdown of the federal government is just a symptom of this ongoing illness. But perhaps we can glean hints of what Obama’s presidential legacy will be based on what people are currently saying.

According to Patterson, after the fall 2013 governmental shutdown, Wall Street Journal conducted a poll in late October asking participants what lessons they hoped President Obama and the Democrats learned from confrontations over the budget and the government shutdown. Responses included phrases like “listen to the people” and “work together” with the word “compromise” showing up the most often.

The same question was asked regarding Speaker John Boehner and the Republican party. The results? “Listen to the people,” “work together, and “compromise.”


Watch the entire discussion above.

“That suggests,” Patterson states, “if you are talking to the American people that the problem is with them and not also with us. That the problem is pretty much confined to the people who are in elected office.”

But if this is the case, who in Washington bears the blame, particularly for the government shutdown? The same Wall Street Journal article posed this question to participants. When asked if Obama was to blame, only about 3% of Democrats polled agreed while the majority of Republicans polled agreed. These percentages switched when the question was posed regarding the Congressional Republicans.

This leads Patterson into a discussion regarding political polarization. Tracing the trajectory of Congress’ political ideology, Patterson reveals the high levels of political polarization in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. This was followed by a period of bipartisanship that started in 1940 and lasted through the end of the 1970s only to give way to more polarization.

“In some ways we’re back to pretty much the same pattern of a 100, 125 years ago.” To emphasize these changes, Patterson showed two graphs. The first depicted the political distribution of the 1973-74 House members on a liberal-to-conservative scale. The graph showed that there were Democratic members of the House that were actually more conservative than some House Republicans and some Republicans that were more liberal than some House Democrats. In other words, there was overlap between the coalitions.

Patterson then presented a similar graph of the 2011-12 House members. Unsurprisingly, there was no overlap. However, it may be surprising to consider that this is the first time in the history of Congress that there is no overlap. And it’s not just the House; this pattern has been mimicked by the Senate.

What exactly does this mean for and say about the American people? “Has polarization trickled down to the American people?” Patterson asks. Some political scientists argue that it has not. They argue that the American public is moderate and given to compromise.

Whatever polarization exists does so largely at the highest levels of government, they claim. Patterson disagrees.

This brings Patterson to the issue of salience. Polarization among the American people has always existed and it has existed regarding many issues; abortion, immigration, welfare, etc. The problem with considering these issues, isolated from time and context, is that doing so does not take salience into account. The salience of issues varies over time and can often change the way people think and talk about them.

The president’s performance, it seems, is always a salient issue. Gallup has been asking Americans whether they approve of the job the President is doing since the 1940s. “Never, in the history of the Gallup poll,” stated Patterson, “have the partisans of the opposite party thought that the President was doing a better job than the partisans of his party thought.”

Patterson’s HKS colleague David King, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, adds his support to Patterson’s words about salience. “Salience is how deeply do I care about something? Is this something that at the end of the day I am going to try and convince my friends and neighbors that I am right and they ought to do something about it? It’s where the passion and energy in American politics comes from.” Actions speak far louder than words, argues King. Simply taking someone’s responses to poll questions does not tell us as much as asking someone what he is willing to do and how he is willing to act on certain issues.

According to King, we are a polarized nation and one that is becoming ever more polarized as time goes on. So what is the solution? How can we move from a nation of polar opposites to one of unity? The answer to this question according to King was not encouraging. “There is no obvious, clean path back to the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and so forth. I don’t think there’s a whole lot we can do.”

But King did suggest some solutions. One proposal is to tweak the current process by which the Speaker of the House is elected. Currently, whoever gets the majority of the votes in the House becomes the Speaker. This typically means that the person who has the support of the majority party (which is often his or her party) wins. One proposal that has been circulating is to have the Speaker elected by a supermajority of both Democrats and Republicans in an effort to ensure that there is bipartisan agreement. While King admitted that this is a clever idea, he also predicted that it would never work. “You would then begin operating the US Congress without a Speaker of the House.”

Another proposal is reworking the seating arrangement of the House so that it is not dictated by political party. But King argued that this proposal would also fall flat. “Unless you can force people to sit in certain places they’re going to self select.”

King was hopeful about his final proposal, which was an election innovation used in California. “[Y]ou vote in a state primary for somebody and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will go on to the general elections. So it won’t necessarily be pitted Democrat against Republican.”

King then discussed the results of one of his studies, which showed that political districts in which the party primary was close in time to the general election had less polarization. King explained why he thought this was the case: “When you have to run to the left or run to the right, you’re trying to bring out the vote from your party base. If the general election and the party primary are close in time, you have to have media strategies and messaging strategies that anticipate that maybe the general election audience is watching as well. So when those two are close in time, you tend to have members of Congress who are more accurately representing the interests of their districts.”

King made one last point about the role of the media in the political process. “The media just doesn’t exist out there. If a journalist writes in a forest and nobody reads it, the journalist may as well not be writing it… We have to think about that interaction between the media and people that are consuming, or listening to, or reading the media.” The way we consume this media could be a possible root of the political polarization in this country. King argued that we are so overwhelmed by all of the media sources and options, that we consume that which makes us feel comfortable to avoid confusion. “We’re not hearing the other argument—the other side.” For more on this topic, read “Is Humanity the Most Important Ingredient in Public Dialogue?” on the Challenges to Democracy blog.

During the question and answer segment of the discussion, one of the most poignant questions asked was a question of who is benefitting from the deadlock. “Is somebody winning something with this polarization?” an audience member asked Patterson and King. “I don’t think there’s a single winner that you could point to. Instead of saying who’s won or lost, I think it’s more helpful to think about implications.”

One of these implications, King stated, is a shift in the way America’s political system is viewed abroad. “The US is not exactly the beacon for how government ought to work. Our particular form of democracy may not be the very best particular form of democracy at this particular time.”


Enumale Agada is a student at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is also a research assistant working on the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series. Enumale’s interests include the evolution of presidential power and presidential legacies, global health policy, and classic films.

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