Voices & Choices

The Violence of Faction: Partisanship Hardens in 2016

The Violence of Faction: Partisanship Hardens in 2016

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned about “the violence of faction.” The design of the republic was intended to accommodate a plurality of factions, so that none could control the government to the detriment of the public good. In U.S. politics, that has taken the form of parties lacking total control over representatives, who instead represent more diverse constituent interests, and form ad hoc coalitions in the Congress. For that to exist, it requires representatives whom voters see as individuals, rather than rubber stamps for their party leadership.

A hallmark of American democracy is that we vote for candidates and not parties. As voters, we pride ourselves on supporting the best candidates, irrespective of their political party affiliations. This “crossover voting” or “ticket splitting” - voting for nominees of different political parties for different offices - is credited with preserving Madisonian ideals of democracy and making the United States a uniquely stable presidential system.

Unfortunately, it seems to be dying. Election results demonstrate that voters increasingly vote for the same political party nominee in presidential and congressional races.

The Disappearance of Crossover Representatives

The easiest way to demonstrate this fact is by considering the change in the number of “crossover representatives” over time. A crossover representative is a Member of Congress elected from a district that favors the opposite political party. As we reported in a 2013 analysis, the number of such representatives has decreased markedly. In 1993, 88 Democrats won election in districts that favor Republicans, and 25 Republicans won election in districts that favor Democrats. By 2013, those numbers were 16 and 10 respectively. After the 2014 election, they were 9 and 16 respectively.

In other words, in 22 years, the total number of crossover representatives decreased from 113 to 25. In the wake of the 2016 election, we can now report that the number of crossover representatives in Congress appears to have decreased again. The exact number will require an update to the partisanship of each district, which is coming soon, but using 2012 partisanship, the number is 24. Using the Cook Partisan Voting Index, it is only 13. Looking more carefully at these numbers after the 2016 election makes the picture even more bleak.

There are 313 districts (about 72% of districts) locked within either a “red wall” or a “blue wall,” that are utterly safe for their party’s nominee. Of these, 166 districts are all at least 57% Republican (by 2012 partisanship) and were all won by Republicans. The other 147 are at least 56% Democratic and were all won by Democrats.

Things are not much better outside of those walls, either. Of the 223 districts that are at least 52% Republican, Republicans hold 220. Of the 181 districts that are at least 52.5% Democratic, Democrats hold 177.

That means that of the 404 districts with a clear lean toward one party or the other (not merely swing districts), a grand total of 7 elected a Representative of the opposite party. These are the only districts where Members have a clear electoral incentive to reach across party lines. Only 31 competitive districts remain, and as we know from the presidential election, candidates do not necessarily have to appeal to the center to win election with a roughly 50-50 electorate.

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Another way to consider this is by looking at raw vote totals. Only 32 out of 435 contests were won by less than a 10 point margin. The other 303 were not really competitive. Also, a majority of the House (218 seats) are now held by Republicans who won by at least 12.7 percent. This year appears to be a somewhat Democratic year overall, and yet the median congressional district was won by a relatively huge margin by a Republican. That reinforces the plain fact that Democrats will have an extremely difficult time winning the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future.

The Connection to Polarization

In a recent debate on politics and polarization, Nolan McCarty, Princeton Professor of Politics and Public Affairs, and noted scholar on the subject of polarization, used his first opportunity to speak to say the following:

We have measures of polarization of Congress going back to Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a pretty nasty time. We had just finished a civil war. One party believed the other party consisted of traitors. It’s worse now.

As we reported in 2013, the disappearance of crossover representatives is directly linked to the increase in polarized voting patterns in Congress. While crossover representatives are not necessarily “moderates,” they do work in a way that earns support from voters who generally favor the opposite party. That means that when the opposite party introduces something sensible, they can cross party lines and vote for it. Conversely, when their own party pushes out something for purely partisan reasons, they can refuse to participate. For example, crossover Republicans were significantly more likely to vote in favor of the Fiscal Cliff Deal struck in 2013, while crossover Democrats were significantly more likely to vote against President Obama’s budget that year. This allows ad-hoc coalitions to form, so that sensible, mainstream policy can be passed, rather than merely policy that promotes one partisan agenda.

The root cause of this polarization is the use of winner-take-all elections, combined with voters’ increasing unwillingness to consider candidates outside their preferred party. Once a critical mass of voters in a winner-take-all district (today as low as 53% of voters) prefer candidates from one political party, then that party’s candidate has no electoral incentive to consider the viewpoint of voters who prefer the opposite party once in office. As detailed above, this describes the overwhelming majority of districts today. As a result, the middle has fallen out of Congress, and the House Democrat with the most conservative voting record is well to the left of the House Republican with the most liberal voting record.

This sort of “party discipline” is common in other countries; it is the default rule in parliamentary systems. The United States is not a parliamentary system. Our federal system relies on Madisonian notions of checks and balances. To function in such a system, the political parties must be able to work together. When political parties act like parliamentary parties in a Madisonian system, you have a recipe for either deadlock or instability.

Reclaiming Madisonian Democracy

To maintain stable governance, either the parties must become less polarized or the United States must abandon its Madisonian constitutional structure and become a parliamentary system. Weighty political commentators have argued that the latter may indeed occur. Election law scholar Rick Hasen has claimed that if polarization does somehow resolve itself over time, a constitutional overhaul could be necessary. Matthew Yglesias of Vox.com claimed in October of 2015 that the U.S. Constitutional system is on the road to utter collapse. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson argued that we should adopt a constitutional amendment to make our presidential system more closely resemble a parliamentary system to prevent a potential future crisis.

We believe there is a solution that will provide incentives for Members of Congress to again work across party lines, reclaiming Madisonian democracy in the United States. The Fair Representation Act, our model reform for Congress, would mean that every part of the 43 states with more than one Member in Congress would have Republicans and Democrats serving together from multi-winner districts. Multi-winner districts with cumulative voting served to remedy polarization in the Illinois state house of representatives after the Civil War - they went on to use the system for over 100 years. When used with ranked choice voting, multi-winner elections would fairly represent the left, center, and right of every district and every state.


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