Q&A: Professor Jeffrey Berry talks about partisan politics and government shutdowns

Jeffrey Berry, professor in the political science department, talks during an interview in his office in Packard Hall on Feb. 10, 2016. (Jiaxun Li / The Tufts Daily Archives)

Jeffrey Berry is the John Richard Skuse Professor of political science at Tufts. He focuses on urban government, American politics, media and nonprofits. Berry spoke to the Daily on the recent government shutdown, as well as on how the current trend of partisanship and gridlock in Congress has been growing since the 1960s.

The Tufts Daily (TD): Was the shutdown in January comprehensive?

Jeffrey Berry (JB): There is never a full shutdown because essential services like the armed forces never shut down and will continue operating. Exactly what these essential services are from year to year definitely has a little bit of massaging at the edges, depending on who is president. Most of the government is shut down.

TD: Do shutdowns always come from an inability in Congress to agree on a budget?

JB: When the government shuts down, there is a failure to reappropriate funds in order to pay people’s salaries. The consequence of this is that you are told not to show up because the agency within the bureaucracy is unable to pay you. If you show up for work, you expect to get paid. It’s not more complicated than that.

TD: What were the key reasons for the short shutdown in January?  

JB: The immediate context was that Democrats for the first time had some leverage in blocking legislation in the Senate that they did not like. Many of the previous decisions were based on a process called reconciliation, which simply means that when it is a budgetary matter, they cannot be filibustered. The Senate created a rule for itself that said, yes, we have the filibuster rule but there can be exceptions and one of the exceptions is budgetary items. The Republican majority extended what is a budgetary item to the furthest reach, such that most things that came to the floor were budgetary and, therefore, they did not need 60 votes to terminate a filibuster, they only needed a simple majority of 51 votes, which gave the Republican party more power in the budget talks.

TD: How did DACA and the DREAM Act come into play with this shutdown?

JB: So this goes back to the leverage that the Democrats had, to force Republicans to negotiate with them. One of the things that they chose to negotiate over was DACA, and Republicans refused to cooperate and push any legislation forward, so essentially it became a game of chicken with Congress [being] willing to let the government shut down over the weekend so people did not really feel it, and then the Democrats blinked.

TD: Could you foresee the gridlock being experienced in Congress leading to future shutdowns during the Trump administration?

JB: Yes. However, … to explain what is going on, it is best to look back before looking forward. The growth of polarization and partisanship goes all the way back to the civil rights movement when the parties basically got reformulated. The newly enfranchised African-American voters moved to the Democratic party, and conservative white groups, especially conservative white Southerners, moved out of the Democratic party and into the conservative party. The Republican party became more conservative and the Democratic party became more liberal. Policymaking in the middle, the moderates, the center of policymaking began to dwindle. Now we have parties that are more ideologically homogeneous and conflict grows out of this.

TD: Has the polarization been growing since the 1960s, or have there been any points in history where it has eased up or moved closer together?

JB: The reality is that politics incorporates a significant degree of antagonism and partisanship, so there [are] not a lot of time periods in American history where we can say that things were really calm and cooperative. You can work back in time and look, not during the McCarthy era, not during the Nixon years, not during the Reagan years. Republicans look at the Clinton and Obama years as awful periods. The reality is that [polarization] is a matter of degree, but that degree has seemed to grow recently.

TD: Can you point to any factors other than the shifts in the voter blocs to account for the polarization in American politics?

JB: Weaponization of the media. The ideological media that has emerged on both sides. It is denser on the conservative side with Fox News and talk radio. The left side has it, but does not have as much of it. Media that appeals to high-octane voters, people that are really interested in politics, really ideological and disproportionately vote in primaries. They overweight in Republican and Democratic primaries.

TD: Has the Trump administration exacerbated this?

JB: President Trump is unique. All presidents have been polarizing to the opposing party, but Trump is more combative, more vulgar and much more narcissistic than previous presidents of either party. He pushes himself to the center of every fight, but he is a part of a longer-term trend.

TD: Is there a breaking point when a country cannot be as divided as it is?

JB: That is a question that political scientists are struggling with: when do institutions become too broken? There is a lot of discussion about that today with the release of the Nunes memo but I don’t know of a clear answer. A consensus has not been reached. It is very hard for political scientists to make such cataclysmic judgments in real time.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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