Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Power and Polarization in a Republic at Risk

James McCann, Walter J. Stone

Representation in the United States has always been a risky proposition. In principle, congressional lawmakers have strong incentives to collaborate on the creation of policies that constituents demand, even as they check and balance each other and the president. Ultimately the public interest is served through the fair and timely channeling of group pressures through the institutions of government.

That, at least, is a theoretical expectation that can be traced to the Founding period in US history and the influential writings of James Madison. In practice, however:

  • Republicans and Democrats have become so ideologically polarized that it may be quite difficult —perhaps close to impossible?—for representatives and senators to work across the aisle on “big ticket” policy initiatives.
  • With Congress these days so evenly divided along party lines, lawmakers who are positioned more towards the ideological middle in any policy dispute may be able to make or break a bill single-handedly—talk about unchecked power!

Such risks to representation, among others, are discussed in our book, Republic at Risk, which went to press near the start of the Biden administration. Now that we’re almost at the halfway point in Biden’s term, should we be just as concerned about these risks? Even more concerned? Or are there signs of diminishing partisan polarization in Congress, and less power accruing to pivotal lawmakers?

Partisan Polarization

Even the most casual observer of current events would pick up on the dramatically different tone that President Biden brought to the White House. Long accustomed to working with Republicans during his years in the Senate and as Vice President under Barack Obama, Biden has time and time again emphasized his commitment to bipartisanship. This stands in marked contrast to the exceedingly divisive rhetoric of President Trump.

Has this change in tone been paired with significant bipartisan legislative accomplishments? To a limited extent, yes. One case in point: Late last year, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill was signed into law with the support of 13 Republican House members and 19 Senate Republicans—not a groundswell of support within the GOP but still noteworthy given that Donald Trump had strongly opposed the measure. Another case in point: Earlier this summer in the wake of a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, 15 Republicans in the Senate voted with Democrats to break a filibuster over gun control legislation. This cleared the way for passage of a bill that expanded gun ownership regulations.

While measures such as these demonstrate that cross-party collaborations within Congress are not impossible, and that a bipartisan tone coming from national leaders may make a difference when lawmakers consider bills, one must also recognize that representatives and senators remain remarkably polarized along ideological lines. In Republic at Risk, we present trends in ideological polarization between the two parties based on congressional roll-call voting (i.e., NOMINATE scores, see p. 121). To expand on this analysis, the ideological leanings of lawmakers in the current 117th Congress (2021-2023), are nearly identical to those from the preceding 116th Congress (2019-2021, see voteview.com). In both the House and Senate, the ideological distance separating the most liberal Republican from the most conservative Democrat is sizeable and consistent from the 116th to the 117th Congress.

Polarization that is this deeply baked into Congress will continue to undermine bipartisan aspirations well into the future.

Pivotal Lawmakers

Speaking of that “most conservative Democrat,” the first half of the Biden term has featured several illustrations of what it means to be a pivotal lawmaker. Since January 2021, Democrats have controlled the White House, Senate, and House. Yet within Congress, the party’s majorities are thin (House) and razor thin (Senate). Within the Senate, any single Democrat would have the power to sink an initiative put forward by President Biden and Majority Leader Schumer, assuming all Republicans line up in opposition—a common occurrence—and passage is through a simple majority vote. To repeat ourselves, talk about unchecked power!

Within the Democratic fold, the two senators who tilt most towards the conservative end of the ideological continuum, Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona), have used this power on several occasions. Case in point: Early in the Biden administration, the president put before Congress an ambitious legislative package to address climate change and a wide range of social policies. This package, the Build Back Better Act, originally called for $3.5 trillion in federal spending, a very steep price tag. As negotiations with Congress proceeded, this amount was reduced to $2.2 trillion, and the bill passed the House in November 2021. But when it reached the Senate, Joe Manchin withdrew his support over misgivings about the price, effectively stopping it—a devastating blow to the party and the president. Further negotiations ensued, with various provisions of the Build Back Better Act carrying over to a new measure, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. With a much-reduced price of $740 billion, the bill became acceptable to Senator Manchin. Days before the scheduled vote, however, Senator Sinema voiced concerns about various tax provisions, prompting a last-minute revision to ensure that she would back the bill as well.

View the Politics Fall 2022 Catalogue here

With the Senate split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, President Biden has frequently remarked that “every senator is a president.” The saga of the Build Back Better Act clearly demonstrates this point, though we would rephrase Biden’s statement: Every senator is potentially pivotal in determining which bills see the light of day, with those who are less ideologically committed to the Democratic agenda being more inclined to pivot away from the party.

Should the Democrats remain in control of Congress after the midterm elections, these two risks to governance in the Republic—partisan polarization and the hard-to-check power of individual Democratic lawmakers—will undoubtedly continue to limit the ambitions of the Biden administration.

Chapter 7 of Republic at Risk notes, however, that the power that comes with being a pivotal lawmaker can dissipate rapidly when the opposing party gains majority control. If, say, the Republicans retook the Senate following the midterms, Senators Manchin and Sinema would continue to serve in the next Congress; their terms run through January 2025. But if the Senate remained as deeply split along party lines as it is now, Manchin and Sinema would likely lose their pivotal positions, and the strategic interplay between the legislative and executive branches would be markedly different. In this scenario, we might expect to see a more assertive president seeking to make policies single-handedly through executive orders and other administrative directives. This would be an understandable outcome, but it would constitute yet another risk to representation under Madison’s Republic—the temptation for presidents to reach beyond the inherent constraints of the office.

Teasers for the book

  • Focuses on the theory of republican government developed by James Madison in Federalist 10 and 51 and provides a coherent, thematic analysis of contemporary American politics, including critical alternatives in party theory and pluralism. 
  • Introduces students to the value of theoretically informed analysis and the use of models to provide insights about voting participation, representation, institutional analysis, and other topics. 
  • Discusses contemporary developments such as partisan polarization and the growth of presidential power that present important issues for students to grapple with in their own analysis. 
  • Utilizes a brief and focused presentation, allowing instructors to supplement with case studies, more descriptive texts, or readers to flesh out their syllabi. 
  • Invites students to wrestle with critical questions such as:
    • Do mid-term elections provide an important check on presidential power, or deny a presidential majority the chance to govern?
    • Does the Supreme Court provide a non-political check on Congress and the president, or is it just another political branch in need of checks of its own?
    • Is the growth of presidential power a healthy adaptation to contemporary problems, or a fundamentally anti-Madisonian development that poses critical risks to republican governance? 

Click here to view the book page

‘Republic at Risk is the perfect text for an introductory course in American government. Short and readable, the book presents the arguments about our democracy’s future that are particularly relevant in the current context, in a way that will engage students throughout a semester. ’L. Sandy Maisel – Colby College

About The Authors

James McCann

James A. McCann is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University, where he has taught courses on American politics since 1991. He is the author of many articles on U.S. polit...

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Walter J. Stone

Walter J. Stone is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of California, Davis. He has taught the introductory American politics course for more than four decades at...

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