Let’s not meet in the middle… Political deadlock and how money changes everything

Ahh, the heady warm-breeze of overheated election year politics. And amidst all the claims and counter-claims, many talking heads and regular citizens bemoan the lack of civility and the intransigent deadlock of the extremes of both parties working against each other. These protestations are almost always concluded with a sad shaking of the head and a fervent call to embrace the ideological middle ground so that some progress can be made.

Horseshit.

Okay, not the lack of civility — that really is a problem and more on that later. What I’m calling “horseshit” is this belief that the ideological extremes of both parties are holding us all hostage. Hell, even Scientific American gave this some credibility with their interview of researcher Jonathan Haidt (who recently published a book titled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.”). Mr. Haidt’s view is that the country has been splitting apart into different cultures and that is the source of all our woes. Some quotes from the interview:

But as the culture war between left and right was heating up, and as the two parties were completing their 30 year process of segregating into a pure liberal party and a pure conservative party, I began to see left and right in this country as being like different cultures.

and

Ultimately, the solutions to our polarization and political dysfunction will be legal and institutional changes which reduce the power of extremists in both parties, and which force the parties back to their traditional strategy of competing for the middle, rather than the strategy, used since 2004, of pleasing one’s own base.

I find a number of faults with his assumptions and his proposed solutions, but I do think they’re examples of what many well-meaning folks believe.

I think the easiest way to start examining this is to look at the Democratic and Republican parties and the ideological underpinnings of the American voter. First, let’s see where the numbers are for registered voters by party identity, according to the folks at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

As you can see, we’re all divided, by party identification, into roughly thirds. This isn’t just true now, but has been roughly true for many, many decades. Democrats, while generally enjoying an advantage in sheer numbers, have lost a few, while independents have grown and Republicans have remained fairly constant. How does this tie into the above points by Mr. Haidt? Well, if the major political parties were truly becoming more polarized, we’d expect to see the numbers above for both parties dropping and independents increasing as the moderates in both parties felt excluded and move to an independent status. That does not seem to be the case at all.

But let’s not get stuck on party labels – after all, the ideologies of the parties can change over time. Let’s look at a breakdown of American voters by ideology and let’s throw some more years in there. This is from the American National Election Studies:

Again, you see some fluctuations, but nothing really out of a fairly confined range. The only real datapoint that stands out to me is the number who reported “Don’t know / Haven’t thought about it” which had a significant jump from 1980 through 1990 before settling down again up until 2008. Maybe what some folks are seeing is that since roughly the middle of George H. W. Bush’s administration, people have become less apathetic? Many of the media talking heads voicing distaste for partisan discourse are age 40 and up – might they just have been strongly influenced by becoming aware of politics in their 20s and 30s when strong ideological beliefs had a momentary lull? I’m not certain, but it does seem like it might be a contributing factor.

So where is this unprecedented great divide that’s breaking our country apart? Party identification hasn’t really changed. Self-identification to slices of the ideological spectrum don’t seem to have shifted much. If you can bear with me for one more table, let’s look at the strength of independents compared to partisans of both parties. Again, this from the American National Election Studies:

This is perhaps the biggest refutation possible of the idea that partisan ideology is the source of gridlock or pretty much anything else. From 1952 up until 1964 we saw those strongly partisan as fairly stable and then in 1966 it fell off a cliff and never really recovered. Weakly leaning partisans however saw a pretty big fall off in 1986, and again pretty consistent downward trend. Meanwhile, those leaning independent started a steady, but occasionally fluctuating rise starting in 1972, while those solidly independent have remained fairly stable with but small bump between 1966 and 1982.

BTW, for those wondering what might have started these trends, there were probably a number of factors. My guess would be changes that started post-1964 were as a result of the Civil Rights Act causing a major restructuring of voting blocks (Southern whites leaving the Democratic Party, progressive Republicans reclassifying themselves as independent and occasionally voting Democratic), disaffection amongst some former Republicans after the loss of Barry Goldwater, and then further pushes towards the middle in the post-Watergate era.

According to the numbers above, we are actually MORE nonpartisan now than we have been in 60 years. The combined independent and leaning independent blocks have gone from 26% to 40% in that timeframe. And ideologically, the numbers haven’t budged significantly in 40 years. America has maintained the basic ideological patterns, while the numbers of those strongly identifying as the extremes of the major parties has decreased. I won’t bother with another table, but if you’re interested, here’s a page showing degrees of party identification for the past 60 years. Neither ideological or partisan extremes are the issue at all.

Why can’t we get anything done? That really is the million dollar question.The cheap and easy-to-answer question (which has probably already occurred to some of you): Okay, so the voters haven’t changed, but what about our elected officials? This is where it gets interesting – by nearly every serious measure devised, the U.S. Congress is more sharply polarized along partisan lines than it has been in a very long time.

There’s lots of people who have sought to measure, quantify, and analyze this partisan divide in Congress. From the voteview blog (some of the folks best at this), comes what should hopefully be my last chart:

What this shows is the size of the partisan divides in the U.S. House and the Senate. You’ll notice that since 1977, the US House has gotten more divided every single year since then (other than  brief plateaus between 1985 and 1987, and 2005 and 2009). The US Senate, on the other hand, has only been on an uninterrupted rise since 2003.

We have a country that has essentially remained unchanged in terms of our ideological and partisan makeup for 60 years, and yet within that same time-frame, our elected officials have indeed become more divided. This makes absolutely no sense, right?! It would seem almost surreal to say that in a country with a representative democracy, we’d see this kind of split between what the voters believe and how their representatives operate.

Surreal or not though, that’s exactly where we are. …at least in terms of a division existing between both parties. But is it their ideology/partisanship that is really to blame, or something else?

Whenever I think about this, and similar stories have been mentioned a number of times this election cycle, I always think about how it used to be. Speaker of the House (and Massachusetts liberal) Tip O’Neill would indeed have a regular end-of-the-week drink with President (and Republican Golden Idol) Ronald Reagan. Can you imagine current GOP House Speaker Boehner sitting back with President Obama, having a drink and just talking? Me neither. And, after a lifetime of being an inside-the-Beltway-brat, my understanding is that was just how it was done throughout much of our nation’s modern history.

Perhaps more importantly was how opposing partisans worked together. Liberal Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy regularly worked with some of the most conservative Senators like Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, and many others (and they with him) to draft legislation. In fact, to get anything done back in the day, what had to happen was that the extremes had to talk to each other, come up with a workable plan both could support, and the moderates in the middle would follow. The solutions never really came from the middle, they came from both extremes hashing out a compromise and the middle following suit.

What caused the shift away from this compromise-based approach to legislation? After all, this is clearly an effect and not a cause. If the voters aren’t the problem, and the past shows us that the extremes used to be instrumental in forging consensus, what changed? There’s a number of causes, but I think it comes down to the following, in order of priority:

  1. Money: It really does seem to me to be the root of all evil. It’s tied directly to the influence of lobbyists, the revolving door between Capitol Hill (for both those elected and their staff) and the lobbyists, the cost of elections, and all the other ways those with power use money to generate influence, power, and more money. It is the only force capable of the complete subversion of the will of the people we see from both parties. Just since 1998, we’ve seen the amount reported being spent on lobbying go from $1.44 Billion dollars a year to $3.33 Billion in 2011. It’s more than doubled in the space of 13 years. And since the number of lobbyists has stayed steady (even dropping in recent years), where do you think all that money is going? And as the hunt for money for elections has heated up, what legislator can afford to be seen compromising with their colleagues across the aisle? The cherry on this little shitty sundae is of course the Citizen’s United decision which further eroded what minor checks there were in place to control the effect of money in politics.
  2. Redistricting: Most people aren’t even aware of how this process occurs. In most states, after the decennial census, state legislators revise the congressional districts, often subject to approval by the state’s governor. To do this in a partisan manner is called gerrymandering, as it is quite easy to, for example, move two congressional representatives from an opposing party into the same district or redraw the district’s boundaries to make the seat harder for the opposing party to hold. That was gerrymandering 1.0. The current version is far more insidious — it basically comes down to a gentleman’s agreement to keep the districts as strongly partisan as possible, thus ensuring easy elections for both parties (for more on the problem and possible solutions, see Fairvote.org’s resources on this). And because both parties are doing this, no one says anything. Some states (only six to be precise) have independent bodies do the redistricting, but as these bodies are often appointed through bipartisan action, it doesn’t really change much. This is the power of incumbency taken to a ridiculous and ultimately damaging extreme. Fixing this would work far better and more democratically than something like term limits. Honestly, all it would take is a truly independent body that relied exclusively on a straightforward software application to parse the census data and, following the federal guidelines (these are federal elections after all), redraw the districts. Interestingly enough, many such software programs exist already — used by both parties to ensure their re-elections. If you want to take a detailed look at what exactly this would mean, check out this Daily Kos piece on nonpartisan redistricting.
  3. The media: With the rise of 24-hour news channels, “news” has become big business. And they’ve got a lot of time to fill. This, far more than the Internet, has been what really killed newspapers, and the traditional role of journalists along with it. It’s true that the Internet does make it harder for newspapers to capture eyeballs, but they’d already been losing them to TV for years. With the cable news networks, newspapers not only lost subscribers, they lost their relevance in being the “first” with the news as well as all their journalistic integrity. Quality of newspaper coverage has generally been trending downward in quality because it’s very hard for cogent, reasoned analysis to compete with the immediate timeliness and flash of TV or Internet news sources. And rather than falling back on what made them special and unique, newspapers seem intent on a race to the bottom. The result, more superficial coverage that pretends to be news and is actually just reciting talking points, which either with or without partisan spin is not the same as “journalism.”

The second issue above is the easiest to address and fix. The first is definitely a little more difficult, as every previous effort to contain the power and influence of money in politics has found. However, it still should be able to be made better than it is now. The third issue is not fixable from the outside in my opinion. I do remain optimistic though that it will be fixed…somehow.

In the end, we have the government we deserve, as it was still, however imperfectly, elected. We’re all victims and we’re all to blame, and no one can fix it except us. Sucks, huh? But not surprising. Welcome to representative democracy. Changes in election laws, campaign financing and technology have created a vacuum that allows money to have a greater and greater effect on not only elections, but the legislative and governing processes that occur afterwards.

But it can be fixed. As stated and shown above, the American public still contains roughly the same distribution of ideologies. We know what worked before in terms of progress coming from ideas and compromises by the extremes of both parties. In short, we know why it used to work and is now broken. The only thing left to do is figure out the details of how we get back to there from here.

Note: For those who fault the above analysis because it only looks at the partisan and ideological leanings of registered voters instead of the populace at large, too bad. If you don’t at least register to vote and then make your way to the voting booth, guess what? Your opinion doesn’t matter. Apathy is not a viable political philosophy.

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