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Divided We Stand

Our polarized Congress is starting to look more and more like a parliament at odds with the nation’s constitutional system.


Beneath the dome: 2011 was one of the most polarized Congresses in recent history, according to NJ’s vote ratings.(Chet Susslin)

Not too long ago, it occurred to Nelson Polsby, a notable scholar of Congress, to explore why the institution had become so polarized. The University of California (Berkeley) professor, now deceased, took the long walk back through American political history, and he ended on the doorstep of Willis Haviland Carrier.

In 1902, freshly graduated from Cornell University, Carrier was in a fog-cloaked station, waiting for a train. The gloom spurred him to contemplate the properties of temperature and moisture. By the time his train arrived, the young engineer had invented air conditioning. The physics of cooling had been understood since ancient Romans piped water through their villa walls, but it was Carrier’s 1906 patent for an “Apparatus for Treating Air” that led to today’s near-ubiquitous climate-control systems, earning him the sobriquet, “the Father of Cool.”


Carrier’s invention, Polsby concluded, is the footing for the nation’s current political polarization. By stoking the historic migration of Republican voters from Rust Belt cities to Sun Belt refuges such as Scottsdale, Ariz., and St. Petersburg, Fla., “air conditioning caused the population of the Southern states to change,” he wrote in his 2002 essay, How Congress Evolves. “That change in the pop­ulation of the South changed the political parties of the South,” he argued, and ultimately transformed Congress “into an arena of sharp partisanship.”

So don’t blame the super PACs, or Fox News, or congressional redistricting (although they all play a role). Don’t blame Grover Norquist or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (although they do, too).

Blame Carrier. It’s his fault.


And things are not getting any better.


The House and the Senate are in a state of near-paralysis over the country’s finances. Even conservatives—who generally embrace Thoreau’s maxim that the government that governs best governs least—show signs of fear and alarm about the government’s inability to get things done.

The United States has an aging population that is depending on underfunded federal health and pension programs during a time of sluggish economic growth, unrelenting international challenges, soaring debt, and pertinacious division.

“If we keep kicking the can down the road, and ducking … and pushing responsibility off to the next Congress, then we’ll have a European-type situation on our hands: We’ll have a debt crisis,” warns Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the House Budget Committee. And that procrastination will mean “bitter austerity … sudden, disruptive cuts … slow economic growth … [and huge] tax increases.”


(PICTURES: Most Conservative House Members)

The 2011 National Journal voting ratings offer little cause for optimism. Polarization remains endemic. Lawmakers march in lockstep with their party. Heretics are purged.

For the second year in a row but only the third time in the 30 years that National Journal has published these ratings, no Senate Democrat compiled a voting record to the right of any Senate Republican, and no Republican came down on the left of any Senate Democrat. (The first time this happened was 1999.)

Not Ben Nelson, the Democrat from oh-so-Republican Nebraska. Not Scott Brown, the Republican from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts. Not the soon-departing Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut, nor the newly arrived Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia. Not  Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins, the moderate Republican Ladies of Maine.

Ideological mavericks are an extinct breed. The otherwise iconoclastic Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had the most conservative voting record in the Senate (Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were tied for the most liberal), and the old fighter jock himself, John McCain of Arizona, voted more to the right than two-thirds of his GOP colleagues.

The 435 members of the House are as polarized as their Senate colleagues. Only six Republicans—Chris Smith of New Jersey, Tim Johnson of Illinois, Justin Amash of Michigan, Ron Paul of Texas, Steven LaTourette of Ohio, and Walter Jones of North Carolina—compiled a slightly more “liberal” voting record than the most conservative Democrat, Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma.

(PICTURES: Most Liberal House Members)

And Ron Paul makes the list only because his libertarianism takes him so far right that on some issues he runs off the screen, Pac-Man like, and pops up on the other side.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t always so. In 1982, when National Journal published its first set of voting ratings, 58 senators—a majority of the 100-member chamber—compiled records that fell between the most conservative Democrat (Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska) and the most liberal Republican (Lowell Weicker of Connecticut). Now it’s zero, zip, nada.

The House in 1982 was chock-full of “Boll Weevils” (conservative Democrats) and “Gypsy Moths” (liberal Republicans). That year’s National Journal ratings found 344 House members whose voting records fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. Today, the number is 16, up slightly from the seven in that category in 2010 but virtually the same as the 15 “betweeners” in both 2008 and 2009. As recently as 2006, when moderate Republican Jim Leach represented a House district in Iowa, the number was 42. The NJ ratings reflect an ideological sorting of Americans into communities that suit their political tastes: the average scores of members of Congress closely tracked how their districts voted in the 2008 presidential election.

Peter Bell contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the February 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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