Does political polarization diminish the prospects of major or landmark legislation? Not necessarily, says Mickey Kaus in a recent piece (“Two Cheers for ‘Polarization’“). His argument is that ambitious legislative proposals (for example, passing universal healthcare or changing collective bargaining agreements with public employee unions) are necessarily going to produce nasty partisan conflict. Polarization, understood as ideologically homogenous parties, can facilitate responsible party government, where each party has definite policy goals that it can enact while it is in the majority, and voters can more clearly judge those goals and the performance of those parties. Indeed, this was the argument presented in the American Political Science Association’s 1950 report (“Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System“), which called for stronger parties to serve this purpose.
However, a spatial inspection of the votes on the landmark laws of the last century show that nearly all are bipartisan. The majority party, even though often large enough to pass legislation by itself (e.g., during FDR’s and LBJ’s tenure) is still able to attract a large number of moderates from the minority party. This makes it much more likely to “stick” during the cycles of American politics. Consider first the House and Senate votes to establish Social Security in 1935. Here, opposition was quite limited and ideologically scattered.
While passage of the landmark pieces of civil rights legislation in the 1960s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) was hardly smooth (Southern Democrats held up Senate business for 57 days with a filibuster of a vote on the Civil Rights Act), the House and Senate votes on both bills were bipartisan. The second dimension – which represents region and racial issues during this period – divides both parties, but with a large majority in favor.
The passage of Medicare was also bipartisan. Here, opposition was concentrated among the right flank of the Republican Party and conservative Southern Democrats. Moderate Republicans and most on the Democratic caucus combined to pass Medicare by large majorities.
Two more contemporary examples of bipartisan support for major legislation are immigration reform in 1986 (Simpson-Mazzoli) and welfare reform in 1996. Even though both votes took place as polarization was ramping up, both parties provided support for passage. The immigration reform vote was more ideologically scattered, but most opposition came from Republicans (though President Reagan, of course, signed the bill). The welfare reform vote passed with large majorities in both chambers, with virtually only the left flank of the Democratic Party opposing it.