The complacency of voters in the center exaggerates the influence of each party’s base, says Rep. Michael Capuano, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
“We are elected, not appointed,” Capuano notes. “It gets me in trouble every time I say it, but this has to do with the American public. Too many Americans have ignored their civic obligation to get involved. They don’t vote in primaries, and they leave the decision to the zealots on either side.”
The zealots, in turn, are whipped up to a near-frenzy by news media that have abandoned objectivity and accuracy as their highest (if often unmet) values, in favor of crowd-drawing, profit-making (and often-manufactured) ideological controversies. Those mid-20th-century days, when three mighty television networks presented one worldview to one American public are gone. Now liberals and conservatives—just as they increasingly choose like-minded communities in which to live—can stoke their biases with a left-leaning (MSNBC) or right-turning (Fox News) TV news network.
“Where we once shared a common set of facts is gone,” Ornstein says. “Now we have echo chambers that reinforce what you want to believe.”
Most Americans “are moderate in their approach toward life, a little less confrontational, a little less likely to stick their finger in somebody’s eye,” Capuano says. They worry about paychecks and report cards, not the conflagrating issues that dominate cable television and drive primary voters to the polls.
“How many regular Americans have dinner-table conversations about what size gun you’re carrying around? Or talk about abortion at the dinner table?” he asks. However, the cable-TV producers, Capuano says, invariably seek the “most ridiculous” members of Congress to talk about sensational controversies. “They are there for ratings. I get that,” he says. “But it’s distorting.”
Sen. Michael Bennet, a moderate Democrat from Colorado, agrees. He was appointed to fill a Senate seat in 2009 and had to defend it in 2010. Bennet was confronted by a challenger from the liberal wing in the Democratic primary, and then in the general election he had to defeat a tea party favorite who had won a wild Republican primary.
The unfortunate irony, Bennet says, is that everyone knows what needs to get done, and wants Congress to act reasonably and do it.
“I actually think that on the big questions—debt, our economy, preparing our kids for the 21st century, energy—you could get 70 percent agreement from the people I represent,” the senator says. “People are not coming to my town-hall meetings saying, ‘Be meaner! Please scream louder at the other guys!’ ”
AN AFFIRMING ELECTION
Mann and Ornstein have spent, between them, almost a century studying Congress. They thought long and hard before concluding, in their new book, that the Capitol is in the grip of an “asymmetric polarization”—that the Republicans have moved further right, in greater unity, than the Democrats have shifted toward the left. The NJ ratings show that the average liberal scores are higher in Democratic districts with large concentrations of college graduates and minorities. But in Republican districts, conservative scores were more uniform than in Democratic ones, and were high across the board.
The tea party’s advent helped make it so, pushing GOP members of Congress in a “right-wing thrust” that is “as extreme as we have seen,” said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist and the author, with colleague Vanessa Williamson, of a new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.
Poole agrees. As does Bell. “I agree with the Left,” Bell says. “Social conservativism is keeping polarization alive. And it is keeping the Left from succeeding.”
“Republicans are the insurgent outliers,” Mann says. “They are ideologically extreme and opposed to compromise on principle.” Some tea party members “are prepared to take everything down, like kamikazes,” he says. “It’s the goddamndest thing.”
And so the cure to our polarized politics, if (unlike Bell) you think we need one, will probably have to come from the Right.
In his policy prescriptions, and his political strategy, Paul Ryan thinks bold and big. “We owe the country a very clear choice,” he says. “The gridlock is as bad as it’s ever been. We need the American people to break it.”
“We owe them an alternative,” he says, defending Republican obstructionism. “We owe them an articulate vision and plan; then, let them pick. If we have that kind of election—an affirming election—I feel that’s the best chance to break this logjam.
“And if we win an affirming election like that, then I believe we will have the moral authority and obligation to act on it,” he says. In part because Democrats are not quite so polarized as Republicans, “I believe that there is a consensus to be had.”
But what if Obama wins, or the Democrats defeat the Republicans in the battle for the House and Senate? Will Ryan recognize that his foes have won their own affirming election? Will he bow to their demands that tax rates for the wealthy be raised, and that solutions to the fiscal crisis include more revenue?
Not a chance. “You can’t solve the budget problem by raising taxes,” he replies. That would be heretical.
Peter Bell contributed
This article appears in the Feb. 25, 2012, edition of National Journal.