No One Thing

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.