While participating in the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, I traveled to five different U.S. states and spoke with numerous representatives from government, corporate, and civic organizations. Additionally, I had the opportunity to spend time on a farm and become acquainted with rural life in the Great Plains. Meanwhile, the U.S. government shutdown for 16 days and Congress struggled to reach a compromise that would prevent the nation from hitting the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling crisis was averted at the last moment, although the solution is short-term in nature and the debt ceiling may remain a vexing problem in the future. I experienced the U.S. as a country of immense cultural, demographic, economic and institutional diversity. This diversity extends to politics, which has recently been defined by gridlock and party polarization.
I witnessed considerable discrepancies in the political attitudes held by Americans on key issues including social welfare, government spending, immigration, climate change and environmental protection. I got the impression that political dissent and party polarization are widespread and have recently peaked. The government shutdown was a product of intractable dissent and party polarization; and the damaging effect the shutdown will have on the economy is still yet to be fully understood.
The causes of political polarization are intensely debated in the fields of political science and political economy. My discussions with U.S. policymakers and scholars during my fellowship fostered the opinion that one cause of heightened polarization is legislative redistricting. In most U.S. states, district lines are redrawn by state legislators after a census is conducted. The motivation to reshape districts lines is to serve party interests. The redrawing of district boundaries to maximize electoral success is commonly referred to as “gerrymandering.” Gerrymandering has enabled legislators who possess strong ideological positions, such as “Tea Party” proponents, to push their agenda with minimal political opposition. Rather than needing to appeal to politically diverse constituents, representatives of gerrymandered districts are more concerned with losing an election to a more extreme competitor within their party.
Firsthand experience of the current American political situation has raised my awareness of the phenomenon of political polarization and highlighted the potentially negative long-term consequences associated with gerrymandering. One solution to thwart the incidence of gerrymandering is to establish independent commissions for redistricting, which has been done in a number of states. Another strategy, practiced in Iowa, is to enlist a non-partisan service agency to reshape district lines. Both measures are likely to make congressional districts more competitive. Nevertheless, the government shutdown has seemingly revitalized the debate about the US political system and its potential pitfalls. This debate is similar to the discussion that is transpiring in Europe regarding the future of the EU. Both Europe and the U.S. could benefit from transatlantic dialogue, which considers related political challenges and how to move forward from gridlock and polarization to compromise and progress.
Max Steinhardt, Postdoctoral Researcher, Helmut Schmidt University and Senior Economist, Hamburg Institute of International Economics, is a 2013 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.