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Politics by the Numbers: Proving the Partisan Divide

July 2, 2010

America finds itself in a partisan quagmire. While parties and ideological divides have existed since America’s conception, such as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson’s Jeffersonian Republicans, it appears that politics have evolved into an ideological and rhetorical conflict that is detrimental to the most basic purposes of governance: to protect and promote the American people and their property.

While the sentiment among Americans is that our nation has become increasingly polarized, with 61% of likely voters expecting partisanship to further increase in the next year, we have to wonder –is this feeling validated by the facts or is it a modern superstition?

As the most accountable part of the federal government and thus (theoretically) the most likely to follow public sentiment regardless of partisan ties, let us examine the U.S. House. Are Representatives being “whipped” into partisan lines more than ever or does it just seem that way?

The above chart uses congressional voting records compiled by The Washington Post to show a steady increase in party-line voting since George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Within the House we see that it is not merely the oppositional rhetoric or incendiary barbs politicians tend to throw about that give us the impression of a partisan divide, but rather that the voting trends serve as factual support of increasingly party-consistent voting.

Due in part to their longer terms, Senators are supposedly more likely to stray from their party affiliations and pursue bipartisan policy. While this is certainly true, especially since the aforementioned House trend of increased party-line voting is not nearly as consistent within the Senate, in turn showing less strong evidence within the Senate, the Senate possesses its own signs of partisan differences, as evidenced by the historical usage of cloture processes.
The chart below (found in an article from Talking Points Memo) shows the history of cloture processes within the Senate since Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.

Looking at the post-1975 data, when the number of votes to invoke cloture changed from 67 to 60, the number of votes on cloture and motions filed for cloture have increased drastically in recent years. The Senate has also invoked cloture with greater frequency than in previous decades.

The 108th Senate appears to prove the exception to the trend of the increased use of cloture, but it is more likely indicative of the nearly equal distribution of Senate seats among both major parties at the time, thus necessitating a bipartisan, costly effort to invoke cloture. This provided strong disincentives to pursue cloture as frequently as a mostly Republican or Democrat Senate may choose.

While cloture is a legislative tool used to gauge majority interest in a bill lest the Senate waste its time discussing a bill with no chance of passing, it is also frequently used in opposition to a filibuster threat. By viewing cloture as a means of a majority party overruling a spirited minority possessing the power of the filibuster, we can see that generally speaking, especially in the past two Congresses, Senate minorities and majorities have had a very hard time agreeing with each other on legislation. This supports the notion of increased party allegiance and obedience.

These findings bring up two significant questions that will require further analysis: First, is allegiance to parties increasing or is the American public merely electing increasingly ideological politicians? Secondly, does the American public actually possess the same party allegiance or ideology that politicians possess? Further examination is necessary, but the objectives of political parties and the votes of their members have certainly become increasingly fallen into alignment.

-Brett Gall

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