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The U.S. Congress recently registered an abysmal 20% approval rating in Nov. 2021.

How often do we hear someone make a remark about Congress being “useless,” telling them to “do their job” or wondering aloud what they’re being paid to do? These thoughts are far from uncommon among the U.S. electorate, with Congress recently registering an abysmal 20% approval rating in Nov. 2021. For a long-standing legislative body that’s survived a bitter civil war, passed historic legislation on civil rights and ultimately helped to forge the most powerful democratic superpower the world has ever seen, it certainly seems like they don’t get as much done as they used to. 

While disagreements are typical and a degree of hostility between members of each party in Congress is to be expected, it’s become far too out of control, turning to hatred, vitriol and even threats. Take, for instance, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who tweeted an edited anime video showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and then proceeding to attack President Joe Biden. In response, the Democrat-controlled Congress moved to censure Rep. Gosar. Unsurprisingly, given the polarization in Congress, only two of 207 House Republicans voted in favor of it. 

The partisan viciousness and dysfunction that’s plagued Congress in the 21st century has distinct origins, with seeds for the current intense partisan polarization having been sown years ago. 

Throughout much of the 20th century, Democrats dominated Congress, often controlling both houses. This was largely due to the dominance of the Democratic “New Deal Coalition”, which united southern, Conservative — and mostly segregationist — Democrats and northern Democrats.

“In the mid-20th century, the Democratic party was in control, but it was more like two parties in one,” JMU political science professor Tim LaPira said. 

The 1980s brought the election of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent “Reagan Revolution.” Reagan railed against big government, unrestricted spending and social welfare programs that he felt caused more harm than good. In addition to his Conservative economic views, he took a hardline stance against communism in terms of foreign policy and adopted many of the socially Conservative views of his second wife, Nancy. His ideology and policy achievements began to win over some southern Democrats.

Republicans had begun to “split the New Deal Coalition by targeting disaffected, socially Conservative southern Democrats,” said LaPira.

While the Reagan Revolution certainly increased the rift between Democrats and Republicans and helped shape the parties more into what they are today, there was still a sense of civility, cordial relations and a healthy respect between the parties — unlike our current situation.

Following the Reagan Revolution  — and building off its success — was the 1994 Republican Revolution, which saw the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was bombastic, heavily Conservative and quite obstinate toward Democrats. He championed a plan known as the “Contract with America,” which called for social welfare reforms, large tax cuts and the defunding of various social safety net programs. Additionally, he aimed to redefine the Republican party in Congress by promoting a more abrasive, ruthless and obstructionist tone, ultimately setting the stage for the style of conservatism we see today. 

The type of politics used by Gingrich, as well as the increasing focus on many “culture war” issues, such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, began the transformation of the Republican Party from a cordial, pro-business, socially moderate party of reason to a populist party which enacts cutthroat tactics to prevent opponents from accomplishing anything, all in order to score popularity points. This phenomenon had been in the making for years before the 1994 Republican Revolution, and it’s continued to intensify, especially during the controversial and volatile Donald Trump presidency. 

We’ve seen this transformation warp both parties into near-ideological monoliths whose constant squabbles and lack of any common ground have put the topic of actually passing legislation on the back burner. Even on the local level within the JMU community, the effects of partisan polarization can be seen. For instance, take the controversy surrounding the recent renaming of certain residence halls — originally named after Confederate generals — and the cessation of diversity, equity and inclusion training videos for employees. 

It’s obvious that division over certain partisan issues permeates into everyday life. The level of division at this point has become critical, but is there anything that could serve to shake us out of our respective political corners and unite Congress to legislate for the common good again? 

Will Frasier is a senior political science major. Contact Will at frasiewd@dukes.jmu.edu.