THE POLARIZATION PROBLEM. Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin's new book Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives is the subject of TPMCafe's book club this week. The thesis is pretty much there in the title. Looking at the book itself and the first round of comments yesterday, from Mark Schmitt and various commenters, I wrote up a little web piece making the case that there is much that liberals might embrace about ruthless DeLay-style partisanship and legislative discipline in Congress. Now Thomas Mann has weighed in with a really valuable post.
Now, there's a part of Eilperin's argument that's easy to challenge and there's a part that's tougher to challenge. The easy part is the notion that members of Congress being mean to one another and Allen Boyd getting hassled by his colleagues for being a terrible Democrat somehow constitute a serious crisis in American politics. The more compelling arguments she makes have to do with gerrymandering and its long-lasting effects both on partisan and ideological polarization in Congress and on the declining responsiveness of the body to the actual wishes of the American electorate. Few can deny that modern redistricting is a problematic practice. But Mann's brief post offers a useful corrective to the notion that all, or even most, of the modern political dynamics that Eilperin laments can actually be attributed to the effects of partisan redistricting. After describing the broader demographic and political realignments in the US in the last several decades that undergird the modern condition of polarization, Mann argues that redistricting "accounts for very little of the decline in competitiveness and the increase in partisan polarization in the 1980s and 1990s. Gerrymandering is more a consequence than a cause of partisan polarization." Redistricting reform is probably desirable and would have some beneficial effects, but it's no panacea for the various ailments that so many commenters seem to think are destroying Congress.