As Democrats and Republicans continue to vie for political advantage, Congress remains paralyzed by partisan conflict. That the last two decades have seen some of the least productive Congresses in recent history is usually explained by the growing ideological gulf between the parties, but this explanation misses another fundamental factor influencing the dynamic. In contrast to politics through most of the twentieth century, the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties compete for control of Congress at relative parity, and this has dramatically changed the parties’ incentives and strategies in ways that have driven the contentious partisanship characteristic of contemporary American politics.
With Insecure Majorities, Frances E. Lee offers a controversial new perspective on the rise of congressional party conflict, showing how the shift in competitive circumstances has had a profound impact on how Democrats and Republicans interact. For nearly half a century, Democrats were the majority party, usually maintaining control of the presidency, the House, and the Senate. Republicans did not stand much chance of winning majority status, and Democrats could not conceive of losing it. Under such uncompetitive conditions, scant collective action was exerted by either party toward building or preserving a majority. Beginning in the 1980s, that changed, and most elections since have offered the prospect of a change of party control. Lee shows, through an impressive range of interviews and analysis, how competition for control of the government drives members of both parties to participate in actions that promote their own party’s image and undercut that of the opposition, including the perpetual hunt for issues that can score political points by putting the opposing party on the wrong side of public opinion. More often than not, this strategy stands in the way of productive bipartisan cooperation—and it is also unlikely to change as long as control of the government remains within reach for both parties.
About the Author
Frances E. Lee is professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. Her previous books include Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign and Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate
“With Insecure Majorities, Lee explores one of the most important questions for understanding American national politics today: how can we explain the emergence of the highly partisan contemporary Congress? With creativity and analytical rigor, she offers a compelling alternative to the conventional wisdom that increased ideological polarization has driven the conflict between the congressional parties. Lee argues instead that the ‘struggle for institutional power’ increases incentives for highly partisan behavior and lowers incentives for legislating solutions.”
— Sarah Binder, George Washington University and the Brookings Institution
“Insecure Majorities is a major contribution to our understanding of Congress and American national politics. Lee marshals an impressive array of evidence to convincingly argue that increasing ideological distance between the parties is not the only—or even the most important—factor driving the increased partisan conflict and changes in party strategy we have seen over the past three decades. Her cogent, engaging account of the nature of contemporary partisan conflict in Congress will be widely read and discussed beyond the field.”
— Tracy Sulkin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
"I have great admiration for what Frances Lee has accomplished in Insecure Majorities. Her stimulating arguments and rich data will spark considerable theoretical debate and scholarly probing, as witnessed in my response here. Insecure Majorities is a landmark study that will provoke scholarly debate for years to come."
— Congress & the Presidency
"Frances Lee has published another tour de force. Building upon her argument in Beyond Ideology (2009) (and the other literature from the last few years surrounding it), she adds an important wrinkle into the current divide between the parties in Congress. . . . Lee marshals compelling evidence at the macro level to show how insecure majorities make governing exceedingly difficult."
— Perspectives on Politics