The Democratic Divide: Politics in a Polarized World

Originally posted at GovLoop as part of the NextGen Government Conference in DC on Thurs July 24, 2014.

This morning Joshua Huder, Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute, came to NextGen to explain a phenomenon on the mind of everyone in American government: the politically polarized state of Congress.

The phenomenon has roots that stretch far back before the government shutdown due to sequestration last fall.  The county-by-county electoral map of 1976, Huder showed, has been blown apart.  The South used to be a Democratic bastion (and the majority of the country didn’t have any strong leaning).  In contrast, by the time of the 1994 Republican Revolution almost the entire country had strong political leanings: congressional Democrats were almost completely absent in the South — now concentrated in cities instead — while congressional Republicans had come to dominate almost all of the land between them. (Note: I don’t have Huder’s maps, but this 1996 presidential election map generally illustrates the point.)

Explaining why this polarization happened is difficult and an area of much academic research, Huder said.  Some people point to the echo-chamber effect of social media and cable TV, wherein voters only encounter likeminded people.  Further, if one party is only in cities, it might be difficult for millions of Americans living in rural areas to encounter someone who votes differently.  Whatever the cause, the effect on Congress has been profound.

“With such a polarized electorate,” Huder explained, “only extreme candidates can win primaries now.  So moderate candidates don’t even make the first cut.  And because Congresspersons generally have safe seats today [polarization isn’t the only reason. Also: gerrymandering], they have no incentive to reach across the aisle—there’s nothing to gain from talking to the other side.  Further, they have to tow the party line or be at risk of losing campaign funds.”

To illustrate, consider the U.S. national debt.  The national debt generally has been increasing since the 1980s (an improved tax code and the economic boom of the 1990s decreased the debt for a time, but it increased considerably following the events of the 2000s).  Forecasts show that unless we have some combination of a growing economy, more tax revenue, or less spending, the the interest on the national debt could eventually consume the Federal budget.  Further, entitlements such as Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security—which are already more than half of the Federal budget—are growing as Baby Boomers age and leave comparatively fewer young workers to support them. (This is a marked contrast to the situation during the FDR Administration when Social Security was created.  At the time, the average life expectancy was about 65, so few people received Social Security payments for long periods.)

Right now, the House of Representatives is Republican and the Senate is Democratic, and each house of Congress has a diametrically opposed solution to the national debt.  The Republian-controlled House wants to cut discretionary spending (note: this proposal does not include by far the largest discretionary line item: defense) and the Democratic-controlled Senate wants to raise revenue (i.e., end tax loopholes, which could roughly double the amount of money collected).  The problem with each house’s approach, Huder pointed out, is that it’s absolutely unacceptable to the other.  Worse, if either house fully got its way, there could be profound negative effects.  Huge numbers of people depend on Federal programs like SNAP (i.e., food stamps), which the House would prospectively cut, and the Senate, in closing loopholes, would effectively increase tax so much as to pass an anti-stimulus plan.

And so the deadlock continues.

This, lamented Huder, might be our new normal.

During Q&A, I asked Huder what can break the cycle.  Do we need a Constitutional amendment to change the Electoral College, empowering a third party to break the stalemate?  Have any other countries have successfully dealt with this?

Huder is doubtful that a third party would work, noting that even if we created one, American history is replete with instances of third parties being absorbed into one of the major parties (the Tea Party being absolbed into the Republican party most recently, which if anything has served to further polarize the situation).  And, Huder added, while other countries have broken parliamentary deadlocks, usually it was through a monarchical degree or other show of power—the very thing our system of government was set up to prevent.

Another possible solution is time.  Huder asserts that the Democrats may be betting that time is on their side—that eventually immigrants (who lean Democratic) will increase until there are enough voters to tip the scales in the Democrats’ favor.  Huder is skeptical, however, that that would work.  Parties are adaptable, and the Republicans would surely seek immigrant votes as well.

Do you agree that Congressional deadlock is a problem?  Not everyone does.  Some state and city governments are taking action when Congress can’t or won’t.  If you do, what constructive solution does the NextGen of leaders propose?

Cross-posted at iContrarian

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