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?