There have been but a few brief periods in US history when partisan gridlock wasn't the rule and when the congress cooperated and made deals, Vanderbilt University professor Marc Hetherington maintains.
The party members and elected officials themselves are ideological, however, and he's in agreement with frequent commenter to this blog New Mexican in saying that both parties have been captured by their ideological extremes. But the general public votes not on the basis of ideology but on the basis of their distrust of the other party.
Gridlock and obstructionism, he says, are engaged in because they work in terms of sitting members being re-elected. Distrust of government and of "the other side" are so high among the public that voters expect their representative to oppose anything the other party attempts. But again, it's not about ideology but about distrust.
Hetherington spoke at a presentation for the London School of Economics Public Lectures and Events series which are made into a podcast and steamed in various formats. Hetherington also has written a book about on this topic with fellow political scientist Thomas Rudolph, Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis, published last year. The London School of Economics has quite a few Americans teaching there and the talk series features quite a few Americans. I'm not sure what that's about but I do listen to one of the talks now and then during my nightly drive to Holbrook and back.
Hetherington says his father was an advisor to Republican congress members of the 1950s and 60s and and he describes himself as left of center. He expects partisan gridlock to get worse over the coming period because it works, in the electoral sense, for the party out of power. He says Democrats were as obstructionist to GW Bush as Republicans have been to Obama. Those of us who are partisan may not remember it what way but Hetherington is very data driven. If you want to disagree you'll need statistics.
He also says that the much talked about demise of the Republican Party is just not accurate. They are in good shape, controlling more state houses and governorships than Democrats -- more than they have since the 1920s (and New Mexico's house for the first time in a long time) -- and control the US house now, which for the past 50 years had been controlled by Democrats, and sometimes control the US senate, too. It's only with the presidency that the Democrats have a demographic advantage because Democrats have the electoral votes of the bigger states -- Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans in those states whereas Republicans have big numerical advantages across wide swaths of the nation -- the so called red states.
This map from Wikipedia which, through the use of shading, shows the average margin of victory in presidential elections from 1992-2008, is a visual representation of what he's saying.