Most people agree that one of the biggest problems—if not the biggest problem—in American politics today is partisan polarization, and most of those people agree that one of the biggest problems with partisan polarization is that it produces lots of gridlock. The increasing ideological divergence between Democrats and Republicans in government, coupled with the parties' more frequent exhibitions of procedural hardball and shouty rancor, can easily appear to explain why Congress is not more legislatively productive, or why presidents' favored policy initiatives often founder before making it into law.
The main problem with this argument is that there was plenty of gridlock, and plenty of unrealized presidential ambition, long before polarization came along. In fact, one of the main arguments of the party reform proponents of the 1950s and 1960s was that the United States was cursed with a system of weak parties that lacked sufficient internal discipline to develop and enact an extensive platform of legislation to effectively address the concerns of the citizenry. Reformers claimed that making the parties more internally unified and more externally differentiated would lead to a more "responsible" party system that would better respond to the growing demands of modern society, enhancing both governmental efficiency and democratic accountability.
Today, we often look back at such arguments and smirk that reformers should be careful what they wish for. But is it really true that polarization itself has prevented the gears of government from turning? During the presidency of Barack Obama, Congress enacted a landmark health care reform initiative, a sizable economic stimulus package, a major financial regulation bill, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, aid to the American auto industry, the Budget Control Act, and a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Under Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, major legislative accomplishments included two significant federal tax cuts, the creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit, a substantial increase in federal aid to public K-12 education, the USA PATRIOT Act, bankruptcy reform legislation, a ban on partial-birth abortion, campaign finance reform, the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accounting regulation bill, the 2008 financial crisis response creating the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and authorizations of military force in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For both presidents, polarization offered benefits as well as disadvantages. Increasing partisanship indeed made legislating more difficult when control of the government was divided between the parties. But enhanced levels of party unity also helped leaders move bills through Congress during times of unified Democratic or Republican rule; 2001 and 2003–2006 (for Bush) and 2009–2010 (for Obama) were largely productive periods for president and Congress alike.
Based on the events of the past few weeks, Donald Trump is unlikely to enjoy the same degree of success as his predecessors. But Trump's problems so far have derived less from the existence of continued warfare between the congressional parties—though such warfare indeed remains—so much as from a serious, and perhaps fatal, divide within the Republican majority itself. The purist House Freedom Caucus recently led internal opposition to the leadership- and Trump-backed American Health Care Act that quickly forced the bill to be pulled from the floor of the House, and this intra-partisan conflict appears likely to extend to tax reform, appropriations, and other items on the Republican legislative agenda this year.
This unique combination of polarization and factionalism is particularly treacherous for the Republican leadership. Attempts to satisfy the policy demands of the Freedom Caucus not only tend to cost the GOP votes from its own center-right flank but also rule out winning over any Democrats, which is ordinarily necessary to pass legislation through the Senate.
On the other hand, conceding opposition from the Freedom Caucus and instead replacing their votes with support from the Democratic side of the aisle presents its own set of difficulties. The pro-Republican shift of the South and rural Midwest has reduced the ranks of Democratic moderates over the past seven years, especially in the House. Without the ability to easily pick off two dozen or so Blue Dog centrists, as Republican leaders were often able to do during the George W. Bush presidency, the GOP is more commonly forced to negotiate with the Democratic leadership—which in turn forces them to make concessions that are unpopular with their own party's members.
This is the trap that ultimately snared John Boehner: the Freedom Caucus and other purist conservatives denied him support on the House floor, which forced him to cut deals with Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, which then opened him up to criticism (from the Freedom Caucus, conveniently enough) that he had sold out his party and his ideological principles. But the consequences are more significant now that Republicans control both Congress and the presidency. Republican factionalism complicates leaders' attempts to enact even routine, must-pass legislation such as appropriations bills and federal debt ceiling increases, and might well prove thoroughly sufficient to obstruct more ambitious initiatives.
Why did this new internal divide arise in the congressional GOP? A complete answer is beyond the bounds of this post, but the most likely causes involve the rising influence of conservative media outlets over Republican politicians, the increasing ability of congressional members to raise money without help from party leadership, the declining importance of the congressional committee system (which reduces the ability of leaders to discipline their members), and the movement-wide eruption on the American right that followed the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
Obama is gone, of course, but a factionalized congressional Republican Party remains. And the Trump presidency will find it difficult to heal these divisions. Trump has started to recognize the problem that the Freedom Caucus and other conservative holdouts cause him, but he doesn't seem to know what to do to solve it (issuing threats via Twitter is probably not the most effective response). He also exhibits limited interest in policy, lacks the benefit of government experience or knowledge of congressional politics (as do several of his top advisors), and has dropped to a public approval rating of about 40 percent after less than three months on the job. The conditions are not auspicious for the leader of the Republican Party to promote unity within its ranks—or to successfully pressure members of the opposition party into endorsing elements of his agenda. The biggest threat to Trump's legislative ambitions at the moment is not that partisanship is too strong but that it's not strong enough.