Political Animal


December 27, 2012 12:44 PM No One Thing

By Ed Kilgore

Since so many people are sure that America is being ruined by partisan and/or ideological polarization in Washington, Nate Silver’s latest take on the extent of polarization as reflected in U.S. House elections is well worth reading.

First of all, it’s very clear polarization in Congress is being produced by voters, not by evil politicians who perversely refuse to obey Starbucks’ demand that they “come together,” and not by some partisan discipline voters don’t themselves share. By Nate’s calculations, 347 of the 435 House districts were more than ten percent more partisan than the country as a whole in 2012 (as measured by the presidential vote), as compared to 247 such districts in 1992.

And despite constant assertions that “Americans” want divided government that somehow magically gets stuff done, ticket-splitting continues to decline: of those 347 presidential partisan districts mentioned above, only six elected House members from the opposite party (42 of the 247 such districts in 1992 “switched” in House races).

On top of everything else, notes Nate, polarization today is more “uniform,” with ideological and party splits being consistent across issue areas. Though there are some small areas of differentiation between “social” and “economic” conservatives, they are relatively minor, and most conservatives have now consolidated within the GOP.

As to the causes of polarization, there’s no one “culprit,” if you consider it a crime:

Some of this [decline in “swing districts”] was because of the redistricting that took place after the 2010 elections. Republicans were in charge of the redistricting process in many states, and they made efforts to shore up their incumbents, while packing Democrats into a few overwhelmingly Democratic districts. In the few large states where Democrats were in charge of the redistricting process, like Illinois, they largely adopted a parallel approach.
But redistricting alone did not account for the whole of the shift; instead, polarization has increased even after accounting for the change in boundaries.

So you can’t explain polarization as the private vice of politicians who defy their reasonable, swing-voting “centrist” constituents or as the strict product of institutional factors like redistricting that can be “fixed” by reforms (and “reforming” redistricting is an incredibly complex and unscientific task even if it were a panacea).

Given the recent (and very consistent since 2009) collective decision of the Republican Party to hang tough and systematically refuse either cooperation with Democrats or any modification of its core ideology, there’s probably no way out of paralysis in Washington that doesn’t involve either surrender by Democrats as a sort of patriotic sacrifice, or one side or the other achieving enough power through elections to make bipartisanship relatively unnecessary. What “enough power” means depends very, very heavily on whether filibuster reform is undertaken and achieved.

But all the pious handwringing over polarization and gridlock that pretends it will all go away if we want it to is at best naive and more often dishonest because it is aimed at the only party willing to even consider compromise, the Democrats. No one thing has produced polarization. No one thing will fix it, if fixing it is actually a better idea than than using it to eventually produce a real governing majority.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Greg on December 27, 2012 1:07 PM:

    Anyone who wants to cite redistricting as a factor in polarization needs to explain how the same constituency can be represented by Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin simultaneously.

  • c u n d gulag on December 27, 2012 1:15 PM:

    To paraphrase Lincoln, 'A house divided against itself, half sane, and half bat-sh*t, and booger-and-paste-eating-insane, cannot stand.'

    I'm starting to wonder how much longer we can keep it the UNITED States of America - and is it worth it?

    My condolensces to our good Red State Liberals and Progressives.
    Much as I'm sure, Red Staters would like to offer condolensces to the (mostly rural) Conservatives in Blue States.

    It would appear that in today's America, we are no longer 'our brother's keepers.' Too many of the people want to keep the "brothers" from getting anything.

  • Neil B on December 27, 2012 1:16 PM:

    Good piece, Ed. BTW just to show what a freak act "they" have become, did anyone hear about right-wing "religious" radio host Linda Harvey saying homosexuals shouldn't have rights under 14th Amendment because they aren't really "persons."
    PS I tried the link re Starbucks and got this message:

    You don't have permission to access /political-animal-a/2012_12/pete_petersons_baristas041999.php on this server.
    Apache/2.2.3 (CentOS) Server at www.washingtonmonthly.com Port 80"
    PS2: this tiny comment box is really hard to use, please fix it. tx

  • jprichva on December 27, 2012 2:07 PM:

    In this situation, the punditocracy winds up acting as an arm of the Republican party, by insisting that the Democrats act like the grown-ups and find a way to the middle ground, a ground that keeps drifting ever farther to the right. If the Democrats won't buckle (and they usually do), they are blamed for not being serious. The Republicans get a free pass time after time.

  • Doug on December 27, 2012 3:01 PM:

    Any "pundit" whining about partisanship is best treated as light reading; you're not going to get anything substantial from someone who refuses to face reality.
    Being partisan means one believes the political party one supports has the best answers to political questions. Being partisan doesn't mean one refuses to admit one might be wrong about something. Being partisan does NOT preclude retaining the ability to compromise.
    None of these things apply to today's GOP. The Republican Party of the 21st century has become what right-wing Republicans of the 20th century falsely accused the Democrats of being: doctrinaire ideologues, unwilling to face reality and willing to see the country go to ruin rather than admit they MIGHT be wrong.
    The ideologues of the GOP are where they are because the MSM and its bloviators, aka the punditocracy, refuse to do their jobs. The MSM should be reporting the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHY of events and the "pundits" offering their take on what that means politically, economically or otherwise.
    Instead the MSM has become subordinate adjuncts of the accounting departments of every network and the "pundits", apparently fearing more for their next cocktail party invitation that addressing the issues, pretends (hopes?) that writing "both sides do it" pieces will cover their *sses. It doesn't.
    Which may very well explain why dead tree news organizations are suffering. Pity we have to suffer as well...

    (thank you for letting me vent)

  • Rick B on December 27, 2012 5:12 PM:

    @c u n d gulag, the real problem right now is that the long term trends are against the conservatives - and they know it. Their only chance is to gain control of the electoral machinery and government and skew it so that they, as a minority party, can dominate it into the future.

    That's what the conservatives did in California with the 2/3rds rule for raising taxes. But after Pet Wilson the true conservatives have never dominated California government. In this last election the sane people finally got 2/3rds of the vote and slapped the troglodytes down.

    There is no hope for a sane Oklahoma, but Texas will be Democratic in eight years, possibly four if the national Democratic party will stop taking political money out of the state to use some place easier to win as they have done since 1972.

    It's important to take the longer view.

  • Marie Burns on December 27, 2012 8:09 PM:

    @Greg. Silver is talking about Congressional districts, not whole states.

    Johnson is, & Baldwin will be, Senators, not members of the House. The Congressional districts within Wisconsin, however, can be highly polarized -- although Paul Ryan's district isn't so much -- he lost his own hometown. But look at District 4 where Democrat Gwen Moore won with 75 percent of the vote & District 5 where Republican Jim Sensenbrenner won with 61 percent, & you'll see what Silver is talking about.

    How the "same constituency" can vote for two Senators from different parties & with starkly different ideologies is explained by a number of factors including the personalities of the candidates & their opponents, the economy, other issues, candidate financing, name recognition, etc.

    It is also explained by who votes; that is, Baldwin & Johnson did not win with the "same constituency." Baldwin won in a presidential election year when the Democratic presidential candidate had a terrific get-out-the-vote effort. Johnson won in 2010, when a much larger percentage of Republicans voted. Off-years are often good years for Republicans because Republicans vote more consistently than do Democrats.

    The Constant Weader @ http://www.RealityChex.com