When weary voters saw the news that Washington had struck a bipartisan deal on the debt ceiling, it’s doubtful that many of them took out stationery to write Congress a thank-you note; it’s not clear how many of us even believed it had happened. Last week, according to a Pew Research Center survey, a whopping 72 percent described the recent negotiations in disparaging terms such as ridiculous, disgusting, stupid, and frustrating. Long before the last-minute, $2.1 trillion deal, voters had thrown their hands up in despair at the extremely polarized state of our politics.
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Most of us are simply asking, “How did we get here?” Everyone has a favorite explanation, with some citing the role of cable news in egging on partisans, and others blaming the bums in office who more often fraternize with ideologically allied interest groups than with members across the aisle.
More voters might want to just look down their own street: Something remarkable has happened in the last two decades. As Bill Bishop, a professor at the University of Texas (Austin) observed in his 2008 book, The Big Sort, increasingly transient Americans have clustered into politically like-minded neighborhoods to an unprecedented degree. It’s not shocking that voters are choosing to live alongside neighbors who share their cultural values, but this choice makes opposing points of view seem more alien, suspicious, even threatening. In a growing number of congressional districts, it also means that the primary has supplanted November as the “real” election.
Seven years ago, in assessing the red/blue divide of the 2004 election, this column observed that the worlds of Starbucks and Wal-Mart seemed almost mutually exclusive. Today, with both retail chains more ubiquitous, a voter’s proximity to Whole Foods versus a Cracker Barrel is probably a better partisan predictor (try finding a Whole Foods in Mississippi or a Cracker Barrel in Seattle). All the way down to the neighborhood level, strong evidence shows that this geographic homogenization is real and has serious consequences.
A recent study of Virginia precinct data by The Cook Political Report found that in the 1996 presidential election, 56 percent of voters lived in neighborhoods that voted within 10 points, in either direction, of the statewide result. Over the next three elections, this percentage steadily declined, and by the 2008 election, just 41 percent of voters lived in neighborhoods that fell within this swing range, a remarkable 15-point drop. The demise of the “swing precinct” was just as dramatic in off-year gubernatorial races over the same period.
This pattern is repeating all over the country, as socioeconomic gaps widen: Diversifying inner suburbs are becoming safely Democratic, and heavily white outer and rural areas are growing even more Republican.
Independent voters are the big losers, even though the latest Gallup data indicate that a plurality of voters do not identify with either party. The partisans in their midst, however, increasingly tend to be of one party only, not a mix. So in more districts, independent voters who crave compromise are held hostage by crusaders on the right or the left posturing for a primary election.
Next summer, don’t be surprised to see a few incumbents who this week cast unpopular votes to raise the debt limit scrambling to quell revolts within their apoplectic bases.
Sure, plenty of battleground states will have front-row seats for the 2012 presidential action next fall. But within states, self-sorting means that polarization within Congress is likely to get worse no matter who wins the White House. Smart redistricting consultants in both parties have noticed that it’s much easier to gerrymander safe seats today than it was during the last round of redistricting 10 years ago. As one insider put it, voters have already “redistricted with their feet.” All that mapmakers have to do is “drag and drop” the lines.
Just look at Illinois, where Democrats in control of the Legislature were able to pack Republicans into five heavily GOP House districts out of 18, all the while making the map look more compact than it is today. Or better yet, look at North Carolina, where Republican masterminds carved 10 districts for themselves and packed Democrats into just three—amazingly, none of the 13 districts will be within 10 points of the national partisan average. This level of industrial strength gerrymandering was far less feasible a decade years ago.
Most of us are also wondering, “How do we get out of this mess?”
Notoriously ungovernable California may be the last place that most people inside the Beltway would look for solutions—but, shockingly, it is worth watching next year. At first, many derided the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission, set up by a ballot amendment in 2008, as an amateur-hour boondoggle. But after the panel of 14 average citizens, which was barred from factoring in political data and was completely unaccountable to politicians, did its work, California is on the verge of passing a map with much more politically heterogeneous districts.
Partisans who control most states have an incentive to make districts even more polarized, but California’s new districts and “top-two” primary system could produce a few more incumbents with an incentive to compromise. So far, equal numbers of Democratic and Republican officeholders hate the way this experiment is going. Sounds promising.
David Wasserman, Cook Political Report House Editor, contributed
This article appears in the August 6, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.