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Political Science Department Presents Polarization and the U.S. Constitution

Posted by: wichmannkm | February 27, 2015 | No Comment |

Polarization PanelOn February 23, the Political Science and Philosophy Departments collaborated to present “Polarization and the U.S. Constitution.” This panel was the first part of a three part series on the U.S. Constitution and featured political science professors, Jordan Ragusa and Claire Wofford, and philosophy professors, Larry Krasnoff and Richard Nunan.  Gibbs Knotts, political science professor and department chair, said the panel “was a good chance to see how scholars from different disciplines wrestle with questions regarding the rise of political polarization and how a document written over 200 years ago continues to be relevant today.”

Professor Ragusa began the discussion by explaining that even though measuring polarization is difficult, today’s Congress is the most polarized in U.S. history. Ragusa attributed this political polarization to the presidential system created by the Constitution. He noted that winner-take-all elections and the two party system have led to extreme polarization and gridlock.  He also said that the intensity of party views and the fact that party leaders have more power in decision making are key factors in the gridlock. As Ragusa noted, “It’s a miracle that anything gets done in Congress.”

According to Professor Nunan, gerrymandering and winner-take-all districts have also increased political polarization. Although nonpartisan committees have been delegated to re-examine  election districts, Nunan is not optimistic that this will achieve desired results. He suggests an alternative election system, known as single transferable vote (STV). For example, our current system in South Carolina has yielded 6 conservative Republicans and 1 liberal Democrat in Congress but that is not truly representative of the 56/44 Republican-Democrat split in our state.

As an expert on the judicial system, Professor Wofford examined whether the U.S. Supreme Court was truly as polarized as the media has led the public to believe. From an ideological perspective, Wofford cited cases such as Bush vs. Gore and Citizens United that resulted in 5-4 decisions but indicated that those cases were not the norm. She added that most cases are not ideological ones; they are law-based and more easily settled. Wofford noted that as the federal government becomes more polarized, it may force the Supreme Court to start making final decisions, which would give the judicial branch more power. She questioned the consequences of unelected justices determining the country’s fate.

Professor Krasnoff agreed with Ragusa that polarization occurs because parties are ideologically sorted and each party is currently more disciplined than they have been historically. He gave the example of the Hastert Rule, the policy that no bill will come to the House unless it is supported by the majority of Republicans. Although some scholars do not see polarization as necessarily being a bad thing, Krasnoff views it as a problem because he said that the Constitution is not functioning as our forefathers had hoped. He added that the intense gridlock experienced within the federal government pushes governance to the state level but states are not equipped to handle these decisions.

When a political science major asked what Americans can do to decrease political polarization, Ragusa responded by saying that it would take a constitutional overhaul. As Ragusa noted, “Baring major constitutional changes, polarization can’t simply be “undone” because it’s largely the product of a long-term realignment in the parties’ policy positions.  Indeed, the parties are ideologically homogenous with clear regional divisions.  I was at a conference where four leading congressional scholars were discussing exactly this issue and only one came up with an answer.  David Rohde at Duke University said: “water.”  He explained that it would take some major national issue or crisis—like a water shortage in the West—that could completely upset the existing ideological and regional balance.”

Interim Provost Brian McGee will present “Religious Belief, Fighting Words, and the First Amendment: U.S. Constitutional Principles and the Charlie Hebdo Massacre” as the second part of the Constitution series. His talk will take place on March 26th at 3:00 p.m. in the Wells Fargo Auditorium.

under: Events, Faculty

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