How Congress Became Polarized

Certain congressional classes can be said to have a particular character -- the Democratic reformers who came in after the post-Watergate election of 1974 or the Republican bomb-throwers who arrived in 1994, for instance. When the dust settles on the night of Nov. 2, we're likely to be left with a uniquely polarized Congress. The Republican caucus will be more conservative -- perhaps radically so -- but the Democratic caucus will probably also be more liberal. If you think the two parties can't get along now, just you wait.

A "polarized" Congress is one where relatively few members occupy the ideological center and most cluster near the ideological extremes. Everyone agrees Congress has become increasingly polarized in recent decades, most importantly because of the realignment that occurred in the wake of Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in the mid-1960s. Until then, the Republican Party included a substantial number of Northeastern moderates (and even outright liberals), while the Democratic Party was a coalition of Southern conservatives and Northern liberals. Once the Democrats became the party of civil rights, their conservative Southern members began leaving the party they had called home since the Civil War, to become, or be replaced by, conservative Southern Republicans. Over the following few decades, moderate Northeastern Republicans found themselves increasingly out of place in a party whose ideological and geographic center was located in the Deep South.

This sorting-out of the two parties helped clarify their ideological identities, but the Republicans who got elected became more and more conservative. Something similar was happening with Democrats -- but not nearly to the same extent. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in their 2005 book Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, "The parties are indeed moving apart, but by no means at the same rate or from a fixed central point. Rather, Republicans are galloping right while Democrats are trotting left."

This isn't just an impression -- it is supported with a large body of careful analysis. The most widely respected measure of ideology in Congress is the DW-NOMINATE system developed by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, which can be used to array every member of Congress on an ideological scale, going back to the first Congress. It also allows one to see how Congress has become more polarized. What the data show, among other things, is that while Democrats picked up seats in more conservative areas in their wins of 2006 and 2008 (when they netted a total of 54 seats in the House), the trend of polarization wasn't broken. This occurred despite the fact that Democrats not only swept through more progressive areas of the country (there is now not a single Republican member of the House from New England, and there are only two in New York's 29-member delegation) but expanded into traditionally Republican areas as well. As the researchers wrote at the beginning of this year, "Polarization in the House and Senate is now at the highest level since the end of Reconstruction."

After November, it's going to get worse. While it is certainly possible for Democrats to minimize their losses and hang on to both Houses, and while there are some liberal Democrats with previously safe seats who could be defeated, those at greatest risk are the ones representing areas that vote Republican. In those cases, you'll have a moderate Democrat replaced by an extremely conservative Republican, which will have the net effect of moving both parties away from the center. It won't just be the conservative districts. The spread of the Tea Party has ensured that in district after district, the Republican nominee is the one who demonstrated his or her commitment to unswerving partisanship and the purest form of conservative ideology.

That has been the essence of the Tea Party and its lesson for even those Republicans who have been around for a while. The factor that brought many longtime Republican legislators a Tea Party primary challenge was insufficient devotion to partisanship or a momentary compromise of conservative ideology. People like Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah got booted by primary voters for displaying a willingness to treat Democrats with something other than contempt (Bennett's mortal sin was having co-sponsored a health-care reform bill with a Democrat). Those who successfully purged impure Republicans will arrive in Congress with a commitment to implacable opposition to everything President Barack Obama or Democrats might want to do. Many of these Tea Party candidates, furthermore -- ones like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Ken Buck in Colorado -- have never served in a legislature and so have never tried to write or negotiate a piece of legislation. They won't measure their effectiveness by what bills they can craft but by how many wrenches they can throw into the process. Every Republican in Congress will know that if they stray from the party line, even for a moment, the consequence could be a Tea Party primary challenge in 2012.

So the next Congress will feature fewer moderate Democrats, more conservative Republicans, and a GOP caucus even more committed to opposition and obstruction than it is now, if such a thing can be imagined.

If there's any silver lining to be found, it's that increased polarization will clarify the differences between the two parties, a potentially useful effect in a country where levels of knowledge about politics have always been distubingly low. That's little comfort, though, particularly when voters so often seem ready to elect whoever appeals to their most powerful emotion of the moment. After all, the country is about to deliver a huge victory to a party whose approval ratings are in the 20s.

Voters, at least a majority of them, don't seem to be asking for effective governance in this election. Instead, they're shaking a collective fist at Washington. They'll get what they vote for: a Congress where the Democrats are slightly more liberal, the Republicans are substantially more conservative, the two parties agree on virtually nothing, and everything the administration proposes will be met by the opposition with "Hell no!" And two years from now, they'll wonder why Washington can't seem to get things done.

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