The Polarized Ice Caps Aren’t Melting
Peter Beinart in Time explains “Why Washington Is Tied Up in Knots.”
What really defines our political era, as Ronald Brownstein notes in his book The Second Civil War, is not the polarization of Americans but the polarization of American government. In the country at large, the disputes are real but manageable. But in Washington, crossing party lines to resolve them has become excruciatingly rare.
He believes that after the parties “sorted out” geographically, Republicans discovered that by using obstructionist tactics like the filibuster made government look incompetent and voters would distrust all of government and take it out on the party in power. He doesn’t blame the Democrats for much but warns they could try this tactic themselves if they find themselves in the minority making governance even more difficult. Beinart offers some solutions:
First, more New Hampshires. Since the 1970s, Iowa and New Hampshire have held the first two presidential nominating contests. Iowa is a caucus, which means that only a small — and ideologically extreme — fraction of the state’s voters take part. New Hampshire, by contrast, is an open primary, which encourages candidates to appeal to voters outside their party. If every state took New Hampshire’s example to heart — and allowed independents to vote not only in presidential primaries but in congressional ones as well — the consequences could be profound. Not only would more moderate candidates win, but the same candidates would stake out more-moderate positions, the result of which might be something of a bipartisan rebirth.
Clive Crook puts more blame on the Democrats than Republicans than Beinart (although he certainly doesn’t give them a free pass.)
For the same reason Republicans can get away with voting as one to block legislation, despite being very much a minority. The answer is political calculation. If healthcare reform was popular, Democrats could revoke the filibuster rule, pass the legislation and be applauded for it. But if reform was popular there would be no need to revoke the filibuster rule in the first place, because Republicans would not dare to use it the way they have.
The problem of course is that making major legislation popular isn’t easy. Democrats couldn’t be any worse at it but that doesn’t mean that something like health care overhaul or entitlement reform is an easy sell.
Open primaries would certainly help as Beinart recommends, but the self-serving gerrymandering might be the biggest obstacle to breaking the polarization in the legislature. In 2002 The Economist voiced its concerns over gerrymandering redistricting.
Now the parties have adopted a policy of safety first. Because the House of Representatives is so closely balanced, legislatures try to maximise the number of safe seats for each side, drawing competitive districts only if they cannot avoid it.
It is probably no surprise that drawing districts without a healthy mix of voters from both sides leads to polarization and locked in incumbents. OpenSecrets.org published these graphs showing incumbency reelection rates.
[update]: As they always do The Economist got to this first. As soon as I published this post I see an entire piece (the cover piece no less) on this whole issue. Read the whole thing (including the related article). Here’s a taste:
Broad support from the voters is something that both the health bill and the cap-and-trade bill clearly lack. Democrats could have a health bill tomorrow if the House passed the Senate version. Mr Obama could pass a lot of green regulation by executive order. It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours. If, instead of handing over health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill. Once Mr Clinton learned the advantages of co-operating with the Republicans, the country was governed better.
They find faults with the same things I pointed out but, similar to Crook (hmm… I bet they read their former editor!) they blame the salesman over the system first. They certainly have a point but I’m not willing to dismiss Beinart’s somewhat partisan argument. The Republicans have really been more obstructionist than usual. Sure, he can pass popular bills and force through bills (like TARP and the Stimulus Package that needed to be passed fast in the face of financial system collapse and a huge recession. But in our deliberately arduous political system coupled with a deliberately obstructionist opposition how can major legislation be passed that deals with distant problems? Obama couldn’t even get a bipartisan deficit commission approved! As Beinart pointed out, this polarization wasn’t always the case. He fears it is a trend. The Economist argues it is “a moment.” I hope they’re right.