March 1, 2013

Political Polarization and the Perverse Logic of the Sequester

As social sector leaders brace for the sequestration in the federal budget that starts today, Bridgespan partner Daniel Stid explores the causes and effects of the underlying political polarization that has driven us to this point.

By: Daniel Stid

On July 2, 1964, after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he acknowledged the political cost of his legislative triumph. That evening, in a somber and reflective mood, LBJ told his then young aide Bill Moyers that, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."

LBJ proved to be prophetic regarding the enduring political realignment that was initiated by his conversion on civil rights. What he did not foresee was how the political forces he was setting in motion would come back to erode some of the central pillars of his Great Society. We are now witnessing this erosion, and it is accelerating. The sequestration that commences today is but the latest example, albeit a striking one, in a string of tell-tale signs.

Sequestration means across-the-board cuts in federal funding for a broad array of domestic programs, many of which were established during the Johnson Administration, that support early childhood development, elementary and secondary education, higher education, workforce development, community action, housing and urban development.

Don't get me wrong—long-time readers will know that I believe we have ample room and a pressing need to refine, reprioritize, and reallocate spending within these discretionary programs. But that is not what we are doing. Coming on top of a series of lean budget years, these cuts effectively amount to a mindless war of attrition on the War on Poverty, especially as they reverberate down through cash-strapped state and local government budgets.

The sequestration will not take into account the relative effectiveness of different programs, it will not seek to reallocate funding from less to more effective uses within or across different programs, it will not consider the macro-economic impact of different courses of action and the extent to which they will set back our underwhelming economic recovery. In short, it is government by an autopilot—one equipped with a cleaver.

How did we get to this point? Let's go back to the political shift set off by Johnson's stance on civil rights. In its wake, as he predicted, Southern conservatives changed parties, moving from the Democratic Party, their redoubt since the Civil War, into the GOP. This shift was partially offset by a corresponding rallying of African-Americans and liberals into the Democratic fold once they no longer had to sit alongside those who had previously defended Jim Crow.

As the two party's centers of gravity shifted, the Republican Party became more uniformly conservative and the Democratic Party more uniformly progressive. This shift was hastened by the spread of the primary system, which made it harder to win a party's nomination by running as a conservative Democrat or liberal Republican. Indeed, since the 1970's these labels went from being simple descriptions of a common type of politician, to terms applied to rare political birds, to what they are now—oxymorons.

As a result there is no longer any political overlap between the two parties' elected officials in Washington capable of serving as the seedbed for compromises and policy refinements, let alone the periodic bi-partisan breakthroughs that led to tax reform in 1986 or welfare reform in 1996. Rather than mingling on the field politically and thus finding it easier to work together on matters of common concern on policy, politicians in the two parties are now clustered in two distinct camps that sit much further apart in opposition.

Given these developments, sequestration becomes more understandable if not acceptable. Leaders of polarized parties are hard pressed to do nuance or take differentiated approaches to reducing deficits, and are more likely to back each other into corners or to shoot political hostages they have exchanged with each other. To be honest, I don't know what social sector leaders can do about this in the near term, apart from bracing themselves for the pending cuts.

In the longer term, we all need to be taking a broader perspective on the health of our system of politics and government. We are all so focused on defending progress we've made or pushing for needed changes on the particular issues we care about—this regulatory framework, that funding stream, etc. What about the functioning of the system as a whole? What do we need to be doing to improve that? These are big questions, but we need to tackle them.

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