27 Feb 2011

How Two Major Parties Grew so Far Apart

Solomon Kleinsmith links to an article by Major Garrett about the decline of centrists in Washington.  It’s actually the summation of a longer article in the National Journal about how the two political parties in Congress have grown more and more apart.

Not that long ago, Washington used to be a place full of individual, and individualistic, lawmakers who were both capable and willing to defy party labels and the party orthodoxy to make things happen. That was also a world, paradoxically, where party infrastructure mattered more; a place and time when local, state, and national party machinery exerted at least some influence over candidate selection, fundraising, endorsements, and field operations. The irony is that in that era of greater party influence, lawmakers acted less predictably and with less partisan zeal.

National Journal‘s vote ratings in 1982 found, to cite just one example, 60 senators who could credibly be described as operating in the ideological middle. Back then, 36 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted in ways that put them between the most liberal Senate Republican, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, and the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska. The number of those in the broad middle in the House was 344. The ideological poles were defined by liberal Republican Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island and conservative Democrat Larry McDonald of Georgia.

Garrett goes on to explain that political parties don’t have the power they once had.  This in turn has led to lawmakers becoming independent contractors that tend to be more robotically partisan.

Garrett is right to a point, but where I disagree is the rise of outside groups that have basically taken over the process that political parties once had.  Last year in Delaware, it was the GOP establishment that thought that moderate Republican Mike Castle would have the best shot at gaining the Senate seat that had been occupied by Vice President Joe Biden.  But the Tea Party was able to put forth Christine O’Donnell and through legwork and fundraising was able to beat the more centrist Castle.

What has changed is that party bosses knew they lay of the land and was able to pick candidates that fit the locale.  The outside groups are not as concerned with what candidate can win in Massachusetts as opposed to Texas.  They want more ideological conformity and will pay good money for it.

Political parties of decades past were designed more for the masses.  In the days when there were only three major networks, the political parties had to welcome people from various walks of life.  This meant that there had to be more cooperation and compromise.  But in an age of Facebook, where people can tailor their experiences so that they only hear what they want to hear, cooperation becomes more impossible.

As we look at the ongoing mess in Wisconsin, I have to wonder if such a scene would have existed 30 years ago.  Listening to all the rhetoric on both sides, you get the sense that neither side listens to the other.  Both sides see the other as a threat to all that is good and true about America, instead someone to talk to and maybe come to a compromise.

So, how are we going to solve some of the major problems coming down the pike when we can’t talk to each other?  And can centrist organizations like No Labels turn things around?

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3 thoughts on “How Two Major Parties Grew so Far Apart”

  1. I am struck by how you, Solomon, Major Garrett and Ronald Brownstein all seem to struggle with coming up with intricate, complex explanations for this increase in polarization in the makeup of the legislature.

    Perhaps we should cut through all this with a judicious slice of Occam’s Razor. The simpler answer is more often than not – the correct answer.

    In this case, the simple explanation for why our legislature seems evenly balanced and highly polarized, is simply because it is accurate reflection of the electorate at large. Perhaps there is far less in the Center than meets the eye.

    This is not something that is inconsistent or even slightly out of the ordinary in our political history.

    This from an old HarpWeek article:

    “The period from 1840 to 1890 has been labeled “the party period” and “the golden age of parties” because the major political parties (Democrats and Whigs until the mid-1850s, then Democrats and Republicans) were the strongest they have been in American history. Party leaders used patronage and campaign practices that aroused partisan enthusiasm to gain wide membership and keep them loyal and active. It worked. Voter turnout during this period was the highest in American history: between 70 and 80 percent for presidential elections and sometimes higher in state and local contests.”

    And of course there is the particularly divisive 1860 election, when we as a country took political polarization to a new level, and spent the post election environment literally shooting and killing over 600,000 of our fellow citizens.

    One is tempted to suggest that unity, political civility, centrism and polite debate is downright Un-American.

  2. It seems to me the polarization is produced by top down control of candidate selection. The simplest explanation is probably closest to the truth. When parties were strong and produced 80% voter turnouts, the 80% moderate middle had a voice in primaries to select a more moderate group of candidates in both parties.

    Americans are moderate pragmatists. “Solve the problem” is the main motive for electing candidates. Fix the potholes.

    Now only 15% register in both parties and/or support one of the parties, so a majority are not allowed to vote in primaries, so candidates reflect the extrmeme polar left and right on issues in both parties to select candidates for General Elections. With radicals deciding Primary Elections, only radicals are on General Election ballots. The number of voters on the far right and left are about equal, so General Elections tend to be closely divided, near 50%/50%.

    Our polarized legislatures merely reflect these electoral demographics. The explanation is very simple indeed.
    Moderates are cut out of deciding Primary Elections. Polar candidates dominate General Elections and our legislatures. Executive elections also suffer from the same polarization.

    1. Very few people pay attention to politics before primary elections, regardless of political affiliation. It’s more about how big into politics they are, and how much attention the campaigns give to them. Since those who are more likely to vote are the ones campaigns have seen have voted in the last three of four or four of four (thats actually what they call them “three of fours” or “four of fours”) , that is generally the people campaigns focus on… and the cycle snowballs.

      Open Primary legislation needs to pass in more states, but that needs to be followed up with campaigns that actually reach out to the great middle, and more open general elections so we start electing less polarized folks.

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