May 1, 2012

The Center Vanishes

The root of congressional polarization

Over the past 15 to 20 years, the polarization in our nation's capital and the federal government has increased exponentially. It's difficult and, at this point, all but irrelevant to try to identify the specific event, or events, that started us down this path. But the result is that our nation today faces the most extreme brand of politics we have ever seen.

What we are suffering from is not merely a flash in the pan for American politics. We face a situation that is more pervasive than the legislative struggles and bickering the public sees on TV. In other words, this goes far beyond the congressional leaders who are the face of this polarization. It is rather a systemic partisanship that reaches every city, county and small town across this country.

The root cause of this partisanship may come as a surprise. In the 2010 elections, it was estimated that 68% of all congressional districts were considered “safe” for the incumbent party occupying that seat. This staggering statistic, and the absence of competition it reflects, has been a central contributor to congressional stagnation. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2010 election cycle saw 85% of incumbents in the House of Representatives win re-election. And that was the lowest rate of re-election since 1970.

When redistricting occurs after each census, the lines are drawn by the party in power of each state government to include areas that reflect the voter demographics viewed as favorable to that party. As it stands today, based on current lines, if 10 sitting members of Congress run for re-election, only two of them may face any risk at all of losing to a member of the opposite party.


Staying on Good Terms

With such a consistently high percentage of “safe” districts, the main objective for any incumbent becomes not victory in a general election, but rather the need to stay in favor with his or her own party in order to retain the opportunity to keep the seat. If a member falls out of favor with his party—say, for supporting a particular issue backed by the opposing party—there is a strong likelihood that the member will face a challenger in the primary election for his or her party's nomination.

This primary election dynamic has become the driving force for where we stand today. Candidates are forced away from independent thinking, away from any propensity toward compromise and further and further to the extreme ends of the political spectrum in an effort to prove their mettle to their own party.

When I was at the White House as counselor to President George W. Bush, we learned quickly what we were up against as we worked with the members of the House and Senate on policy issues. For example, when the legislature was considering a free trade agreement, anywhere from 65 to 70 of our Democratic colleagues in the House would tell us informally that they supported the legislation. But we rarely got that many actual votes, because the representative feared that voting for a policy of the opposite party would be seen as weakness, and result in a likely challenge in the next primary. The same routine held true for members of the Republican Party on immigration issues. There was a distinct fear on both sides of the aisle that one misstep could open the door for a more hard-line candidate to run against them as more progressive, or more conservative.

Each election—each year, for that matter—our competing political ideologies are pulled further and further apart. And, as a result, we are losing a critical part of the political dynamic; we are losing members who represent the space in-between ideological extremes. Ironically, the American public, according to the polls, is identifying more and more with the political center, while representation of that center is waning in Washington.

For a primary example, look no further than the House Blue Dog Caucus—the group of conservative and centrist Democrats in the House that was formed in 1995. After reaching its high point of membership at 54 in 2006, the Caucus now has just 25 members and is expected to lose more after the elections later this year.

One of the most prominent factors in this saga is the evolution in technology today. Despite the astounding proliferation of information outlets, people are not reading and looking at news and commentary they disagree with. Instead of broadening the public's exposure to various points of view, technology has narrowed that exposure and contracted the political debate. Surveys repeatedly show that individuals are more inclined to read, watch or follow information sources that share their political interests. The result: public political views are reinforced and hardened, and an ideological wedge is driven deeper.

Fixing the System

Healthy disagreement and debate are the principles upon which our government was founded, with the expectation that compromises would be reached among the debating parties. Today we are more inclined to find extreme factions embedded and controlling the primary elections of each political party. With the center of our political spectrum disappearing, we are finding our elected officials have less incentive to seek compromise.

The solution comes back to each city, county and small town across our country. The centrists and moderates who tend to stay home for primary campaigns and elections must participate again. Continuing to reward the extremes will only perpetuate the vicious cycle we are witnessing today.

Dan Bartlett is president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, U.S. Before joining H+K, Bartlett served in the White House as counselor to President George W. Bush and played key roles in the historic 2000 Bush campaign and 2004 re-election.