Friday, August 29, 2014
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Head Strong: Polarization likely to only worsen

Individualism is dead.

That's the stark take-away from an analysis of congressional voting records by the National Journal.

Since 1982, the Journal has combed congressional votes on key issues and rated legislators' records. Last year, it reviewed 95 significant votes in both chambers using a relative, not absolute, measure. In other words, it seeks to compare members with one another, so, for example, a liberal score of 70 means that member is more liberal than 70 percent of his or her colleagues.

In analyzing votes cast in 2010, the Journal concluded that the level of polarization was the highest in three decades of measurement. Every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than every Senate Republican, and every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than every Senate Democrat. The House of Representatives was similarly divided.

In 1982, for comparison, 36 Senate Democrats scored as conservative as Lowell Weicker, the most liberal Republican, and 24 Senate Republicans were as liberal as the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky. In other words, 60 percent of the Senate was somewhere in the middle!

Since then, the "the ideological outliers have been purged," I was told recently by Ronald Brownstein, political director of the Journal and author of The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America. "The story of the last three decades of American politics is unstinting polarization, a fusion of ideology and partisanship."

Gone are the days when Jesse Helms and Jacob Javits were colleagues in the Senate Republican caucus, while Hubert Humphrey and Richard Russell were both Democrats. Arlen Specter once discussed with me a meeting of moderate Republicans who gathered once a week to discuss policy and strategy. In the early 1980s, the group had two dozen members. By his last term in office, Specter was saying that "the moderates can meet in a phone booth."

The trend is unmistakable and raises two questions: What accounts for the change? And is it necessarily negative?

Brownstein argued that a combination of factors explains the purge. First, he pointed toward changes in party leadership that facilitate ascendance based not on seniority but on the support of colleagues. This puts more pressure on legislators to toe a party line. For example, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ousted Rep. John Dingell as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee when he wouldn't go along on climate change.

Matt Bennett, cofounder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said members of Congress were polarized as a result of what he called "the great sorting out."

"Congressional districts have gotten redder and bluer, and people have chosen to live with like-minded folks," Bennett wrote me in an e-mail. "Add to that the phenomenon of closed primaries that occur at odd times (such as the middle of August) with extremely low turnout (around 4 percent), and you're left with only the most committed members of the two parties choosing their congressional and Senate candidates."

Brownstein agreed, saying the primary process tended to reward the most ideologically driven candidates. This makes sense: Often the most passionate voters show up on primary day, and passion is often driven by ideology.

And let's not forget the rise of the partisan media.

"The Internet, talk radio, cable TV all provide huge amplifiers for angry voices, which has created a system in which bad behavior [hyper-partisanship] is rewarded and bipartisanship is punished," said Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist who has worked for George W. Bush, John McCain, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.

The period of polarization in Congress charted by the Journal overlaps the rise of opinionated media. Rush Limbaugh launched nationally in 1988. Fox News went live in 1996. MSNBC hired Keith Olbermann in 2003. The split-screen television treatment of colleagues is now seen in Washington.

To what effect?

Political pragmatists are lacking in representation even as more Americans identify their general approach to issues as "moderate" than very liberal or conservative or somewhat liberal or conservative.

"It's crazy and makes no sense," McKinnon said, "but while voters are getting more independent, our elected officials are becoming more dependent and responsive to the constituencies represented by fringe organizations who find a powerful and disproportionate voice through cable TV, talk radio, and the Internet."

Republicans are losing a voice in the Northeast. Democrats are disappearing from the South. And when consensus can't be reached, problems don't get solved.

"When one party has to pass legislation on its own," Brownstein said, "it shoots for center of its own coalition, which is not the center of the country. And when you do that, little by little . . . you are increasingly pulling away from the middle."

So will it change? Probably not until it gets worse.


Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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