06/12/2012 (19:00 - 20:30) · Essen · Volkshochschule Essen
Lecture & Discussion
Essen: »A House Divided. Polarization and its Effects«with Dr. Jim Thomson, President em., RAND Corporation
Obamacare, government debt, Guantánamo – political and reform gridlock weigh on President Obama’s credibility. Where the tug war between President and Congress comes from, how this phenomenon develops and what impact it has on the legislative process were the topics of Dr. Jim Thomson’s presentation. At the Amerika Haus e.V. NRW’s invitation, the former RAND Corporation’s President gave a lecture on his study “A House Divided. Polarization and its Effects” on June 12, 2012 at the community college in Essen, addressing the polarization of political parties, its causes and impacts.
In order to explain his findings, Dr. Thomson began his presentation by discussing how the Constitution shapes American politics. Thus, not only the separation of powers but also the federal character of the American polity controls the abuse of power by a few, as intended by federalists such as Madison. However, this type of geographically-based representation and weighted voting promotes in fact a two-party system which again stimulates a polarization of political positions.
With that said the phenomenon of polarization and its effects is not a new one but developed rather gradually. To what concept then does the term polarization refer in this case? According to Dr. Thomson it is essential to first understand the effect it has on partisan loyalties in Congress. Showing diagrams, Dr. Thomson illustrated this development. In the 1970s there was still a considerable amount of congressmen constituting a so called “Zone of Bipartisanship” and did not necessarily vote in accordance with their party membership. As intended by Madison, this promoted political compromise. Looking at the 103rd Congress in the early 90s though, this kind of overlapping partisan interests has ceased significantly. From then on Democratic and Republican representatives keep diverging ideologically from one another.
Why is that? Dr. Thomson hypothesizes that polarization within Congress depends on the geographical, demographical, and cultural background of its representatives. That is, the congressmen appear to be a model of society as a whole, a development fostered by the geographically shaped election system. Therefore, Dr. Thomson assumes that ideological attitudes represented in a particular region, like a County, can be utilized to predict the vote of its congressman and the other way around.
As the legislative process is considerably tied to geographical representation, social polarization reflects along ideological edges within Congress. This is why a lack of willingness to compromise occurs further inhibiting not only the congressional but due to the separation of power also the presidential ability to act. Since this phenomenon has developed gradually, it did not have such a strong effect on the presidency of Bill Clinton, but a recognizable higher impact on George W. Bush’s scope, and currently an even stronger effect on President Obama’s agenda.
Considering policies, this process of polarization does not only shape domestic policy issues such as gun, migration, or abortion law and budget policy in general but also influences the American foreign policy and thus the transatlantic relations.
However, even though polarization and political gridlock shape American politics in general and Barack Obama’s presidency in particular, Dr. Thomson identifies social trends to be optimistic about. The electoral law reforms in California, for example, or the recognizable amount of independent and moderate voters, who decide upon content and without party affiliation or ideology, might ease the phenomenon of polarization.
Inspired by Dr. Thomson’s sophisticated yet still descriptive presentation the guests took their chance and engaged into a discussion with the speaker who enjoyed answering questions on the Tea Party’s as well as the media’s impact, President Obama’s intended reforms, and Dr. Thomson’s study and methodological approach.
Dr. Jim Thomson holds a Ph.D in physics, was member of the National Security Council as well as of the Department of Defense, and most recently President of the RAND Corporation from 1989 to 2011.
Moderation: Prof. Dr. Andreas Blätte, Juniorprofessur für Politikwissenschaft der WestLB-Stiftung NRW, Universität Duisburg-Essen
Summary by Svea Burmester, Amerika Haus e.V. NRW
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