There are two linked clichés that trouble me: “There’s no real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans anymore,” and “I vote the person, not the party.”

This is bad analysis and bad politics. The parties are more sharply different today than they have been in any time since at least the New Deal. Because of this, and because in Congress today party discipline has substantially increased, giving little attention to the party of the candidate for whom you are voting makes it less likely than it should that your views will be carried out in public policy.

Many of the differences between the parties are widely publicized: climate change, abortion, raising the minimum wage, preserving Medicare benefits, extending health care and regulating financial institutions. But there are other differences that ought to be taken into account.

The complaint that women are inadequately represented in Congress is a legitimate one – they make up less than 20 percent. But this is not a criticism of American politics in general, but a result of the very different paths our two parties have taken. This figure is a composite. Thirty-two percent of the Democratic members of the House and Senate are female. The comparable figure for the Republicans is 9 percent (62 female House Democrats out of 188; 22 female House Republicans out of 247; 14 female Senate Democrats out of 45; and six female Senate Republicans out of 54).

These numbers are reflected in the distribution of power within each body. Not only has Rep. Nancy Pelosi been the Democratic leader for some time, there are many Democratic women in both branches who have served as committee chairs and are now committee minority leaders. (There are far fewer of these on the Republican side.)

The next area in which party differences are striking is in judicial appointments. Knowing the party of the president who appointed a Supreme Court justice gives you a better than 80 percent chance of predicting how he or she will vote on high-profile cases. All but Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy can be predicted by a close to 100 percent ratio.

Similar considerations apply in analyzing the decisions of lower court judges. One of the best things that happened to financial reform was the ending of the filibuster over confirmations for judges below the Supreme Court. The circuit court for the District of Columbia – which hears all of the appeals from federal regulatory matters – had become disproportionately conservative. Republicans in the Senate had succeeded in blocking confirmation of President Obama’s appointees that would have ended this imbalance and in consequence, several important rules adopted by the financial regulators pursuant the legislation were thrown out.

With the confirmation of Obama-appointed judges, the regulators have been much more successful.

Indeed, if Obama had not been able to appoint a majority of the members of these agencies, there would have been few pro-regulatory rules to uphold. The Democratic appointees to various regulatory commissions are much more likely to take positions in favor of strict regulations, while the Republicans have moved in the opposite direction. There have been a recent series of cases at the Securities Exchange Commission where, because the chair of that body, Mary Jo White, has had to recuse herself, the commission split 2-2. In every one of those cases the two Democratic commissions were for much tougher penalties than their Republican counterparts.

At the Federal Communications Commission, the adoption of net neutrality – preventing companies from charging differential prices for the transmission of material – was also the result of a partisan division, with Chairman Tom Wheeler and his two Democratic colleagues overruling the two Republicans. A final example is the ability of the Securities Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to regulate the overseas derivative activities of the affiliates of American banks. Only after a long partisan battle were the Democratic majorities on these two commissions able to cover them in regulation.

I do not cite these things to celebrate them. The partisan division in the regulatory agencies is not the ideal, although in some ways it does reflect an improvement over the situation of the ’80s and ’90s, when there was more general partisan agreement to deregulate. But as long as we have a system in which extreme partisanship prevails in primaries, especially on the Republican side, people who ignore party when they vote in November are unlikely to be effectively vindicating their own views.

In previous times, parties that selected nominees who too purely represented their most ardent members suffered at the polls. We will not see self-restraint amongst partisans selecting candidates in primaries until they again fear that too much purity in the primary will lead to defeat in November. The breakdown of the appropriate mix of partisanship and bipartisanship to keep the American government functioning since 2010 stems from the fact that the most right wing elements took over the Republican party in that year and, contrary to previous American experience when extremists were punished by the electorate in November, took control of the House and ultimately added the Senate as well. Three electoral responses are possible. First, “independents” can decide that voting Democratic is the appropriate response to the right wing movement of the Republican Party. Second, Republicans who disagree with the tea party approach can take back their party by voting more regularly and thoughtfully in primaries. Third, presidents responding to the need to govern – probably but not necessarily Democrats – will engage in a series of conflicts with a very conservative Congress much less willing to accommodate these deeds, and gridlock will continue.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

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