Polarization and the Changing American Constitutional System

Nolan McCarty (Princeton University)

March 22, 2019, 11:30–12:30



Concerns about the systemic consequences of polarization in the US arise from the belief that the Congress is not designed to perform well in highly polarized environments. First, bicameralism and other supermajoritarian institutions make the formation of winning coalitions very difficult even in the best of circumstances. Now that polarization has increased the difficulty of building them across party lines, legislating only becomes harder. Second, compounding the problems of legislative partisanship is that each party is heavily factionalized ideologically. Unlike legislative leaders elsewhere who have powers of confidence and dissolution on top of the control of renomination, American party leaders are often unable to manage conflicts within their own ranks. Finally, as legislative partisanship has increased, legislators of the president's party are often forced to act as advocates of the administration rather than as defenders of the prerogatives of a co-equal branch. Thus, executive and judicial incursions on legislative prerogatives are likely to remain unchecked. The implications of these reductions of legislative performance on the functioning of the American constitutional system have not received much attention. Thus several important questions are unanswered. How have the other branches of government responded to the decline in legislative capacity occasioned by increased polarization? Have these branches expanded their power, authority, and policy impact at Congress's expense? Or has legislative dysfunction made it more difficult for other actors to carry out their constitutional duties? Moreover, how has political polarization impacted the internal functioning of the executive and judicial branches and the states? I argue in this chapter that Congress not only has lost considerable ground to the executive, its relative weakness has greatly empowered the judiciary and the states. The result is a likely significant change in the balance of de facto constitutional powers. Moreover, I argue that these changes may result in a deterioration in the quality of policymaking in the US.


Nolan McCarty (Princeton University), Polarization and the Changing American Constitutional System, IAST General Seminar, Toulouse: IAST, March 22, 2019, 11:30–12:30.