Polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress is the worst it’s ever been, which makes it difficult to make any progress on social or economic policies, a new study released by Michigan State University found.
“Today, we’ve hit the ceiling on polarization. At these levels, it will be difficult to make any progress on social or economic policies,” Zach Neal, the study’s author, said on Monday.
Neal drew on data on bill co-sponsorship in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate from 1973 to 2016 to reach his conclusion.
The study, published in the Journal of Social Networks, showed that the partisan divide between legislators has steadily grown over that time and reached unprecedented levels in recent years. It also found that trends in congressional polarization are unrelated to which party holds the majority.
While legislators have always worked more closely with colleagues in their own party to pass bills, the study shows a sharp decline in cooperation. Today, Neal found that representatives “almost never” co-sponsor bills proposed by members of “the opposition.”
In the study, Neal made a distinction between “weak” polarization, which occurs when relations between the parties are “merely absent,” and “strong” polarization, which occurs when relations are confrontational. He used the Affordable Care Act – also known as “Obamacare” – to illustrate the worsening phenomenon of strong polarization.
When Democrats held a slim majority in Congress, they were able to narrowly pass the healthcare reform bill. As soon as Republican regained a majority, they attempted to repeal the bill.
“We’re seeing lots of animosity in politics,” Neal said. “Although bills do occasionally get passed, they don’t stick around long enough, or never get fully implemented, and therefore don’t have a lasting impact. This kind of partisanship means that our democracy has reached a kind of stalemate.”
In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Republican Senator Jeff Flake acknowledged that the current political environment makes cooperation nearly impossible.
“There’s no value to reaching across the aisle,” Flake, who is not running for re-election, said. “There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”
Flake was the lone Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to call for an FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations levied against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
If he were running for re-election, Flake said there’s “not a chance” he would have been able to break from the party line and voice his support for the investigation.