Divided We Stand

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

The Capitol Rotunda allows natural light into the building on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2011.
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
John Aloysius Farrell
Feb. 23, 2012, 11 a.m.

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.

Con­tin­ued po­lar­iz­a­tion could lead to aw­ful con­sequences. “The coun­try is in dire straits, and “¦ we are tied down like Gul­li­v­er by the Lil­li­pu­tians .”¦ We can’t do squat,” said Keith Poole, an ex­pert on polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion from the Uni­versity of Geor­gia. “The tea party whack jobs are right: We’re bank­rupt.”¦ But we’re just drift­ing, drift­ing to­ward the falls.”

Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers now sound, and act, like their par­lia­ment­ary coun­ter­parts in for­eign lands — vot­ing in ri­gid blocs and, in times of le­gis­lat­ive grid­lock, call­ing for an elec­tion to put the ques­tion to the voters.

“On big is­sues — taxes and rev­en­ues and health care — as the pres­id­ent him­self said, we are not go­ing to agree,” says Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, the Re­pub­lic­an from Vir­gin­ia. “That’s for the elec­tion.”

Fair enough, save that the par­lia­ment­ary peg does not fit in the holes of the Amer­ic­an con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem. In Ot­t­awa, New Del­hi, or West­min­ster, a new prime min­is­ter emerges from the le­gis­lat­ive branch and takes of­fice with a uni­fied ma­jor­ity, al­most guar­an­teed to get his or her pro­gram en­acted.

(PIC­TURES: Most Con­ser­vat­ive Sen­at­ors)

But Amer­ica’s Founders were wary of par­lia­ment­ary ma­jor­it­ies; they fought a re­volu­tion against one that they per­ceived as cor­rupt and tyr­an­nic­al. They de­signed a sys­tem to hobble a ma­jor­ity and force the coun­try’s var­ied re­gions, states, and in­terests to co­oper­ate.

“There is a mis­match between our new, par­lia­ment­ary-style parties and the gov­ern­ing sys­tem in which they have to op­er­ate,” says Thomas Mann, a con­gres­sion­al schol­ar at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and the coau­thor, with Nor­man Orn­stein of the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, an up­com­ing book on the dis­mal state of Con­gress. “The Framers had in mind, with the Con­sti­tu­tion’s sep­ar­a­tion of powers and checks and bal­ances, a pro­cess of ne­go­ti­ation. But now these ne­go­ti­ations don’t take place. The in­clin­a­tion is to op­pose, ob­struct, dis­cred­it, and nul­li­fy.”

Few in Wash­ing­ton be­lieve that Can­tor’s Re­pub­lic­ans will re­spect Pres­id­ent Obama’s man­date if he wins reelec­tion. Their GOP coun­ter­parts in 1992 and 2008, as well as their Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­parts in 2000, barely re­cog­nized the le­git­im­acy of the newly elec­ted chief ex­ec­ut­ive, and there is little reas­on to think that the cur­rent crop of con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans — or Demo­crats — would de­fer to a lead­er from the rival party.

Would Can­tor hon­or the elect­or­ate’s ver­dict if Obama wins in Novem­ber? “That is a hy­po­thet­ic­al I am not an­swer­ing,” the ma­jor­ity lead­er says.

Some people wel­come po­lar­ity. Jef­frey Bell is a con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist and the­or­ist — a former aide to Ron­ald Re­agan and past pres­id­ent of the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute — whose new book, The Case for Po­lar­ized Polit­ics, ar­gues that the in­flex­ible per­sist­ence of Amer­ica’s so­cial con­ser­vat­ives is all that saves the na­tion from a cruel des­cent in­to so­cial­ist misery.

(PIC­TURES: Most Lib­er­al Sen­at­ors)

“Po­lar­iz­a­tion isn’t all bad.”¦ When it comes to de­fend­ing ba­sic prin­ciples “¦ po­lar­iz­a­tion is a good thing,” Bell told the ram­bunc­tious young audi­ence at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, a gath­er­ing of thou­sands of con­ser­vat­ive faith­ful earli­er this month. “There is no truce on so­cial is­sues “¦ be­cause the Left is re­lent­less.”

But le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers don’t have the free­dom to op­er­ate as polit­ic­al the­or­ists. They know they’re sent to Wash­ing­ton to get things done. So they de­plore the situ­ation and blame the oth­er party. It is a self-per­petu­at­ing spir­al, en­sur­ing that the status quo stays quo.

“It is dis­ap­point­ing to me that the Re­pub­lic­ans give so little co­oper­a­tion to Pres­id­ent Obama, when we gave so much co­oper­a­tion to Pres­id­ent Bush,” says Rep. Nancy Pelosi of Cali­for­nia, the House Demo­crat­ic lead­er — an as­ser­tion that draws guf­faws from Re­pub­lic­ans.

The Demo­crats “rammed “˜Obama­care’ through the House, us­ing every trick in the book to stifle dis­sent and cir­cum­vent the will of the Amer­ic­an people,” Speak­er John Boehner told CPAC. “We are al­low­ing a wide-open pro­cess to re­peal it.”

Ad­her­ents on each side have their own myth­ic mo­ments — times when they held their hand out in a ges­ture of fel­low­ship, only to have it spat upon.

For Demo­crats, the great double-cross came in the 2002 cam­paign when, after they gave Pres­id­ent Bush all that he asked in that re­mark­able mo­ment of na­tion­al unity after the 9/11 at­tacks, GOP ads por­trayed them as stooges of al-Qaida — even Sen. Max Cle­land of Geor­gia, a wounded Vi­et­nam War vet­er­an. And House Re­pub­lic­ans are still seeth­ing about the day in April 2010 when Ry­an, after re­leas­ing a polit­ic­ally risky GOP budget pro­pos­al, was in­vited to the pres­id­en­tial re­sponse at Geor­getown Uni­versity. Sit­ting in the front row, ex­pect­ing an olive branch, Ry­an got a kick in the teeth. Obama offered no com­prom­ise, no reas­on­ab­il­ity. The pres­id­ent spouted “a bunch of dem­agoguery in the cam­paign mode,” Ry­an says.

It’s dif­fi­cult to grasp in these days of a hy­per-par­tis­an Con­gress, but Cap­it­ol Hill was once a place — not too long ago — where Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans routinely worked to­geth­er.

And here’s an­oth­er his­tor­ic fact to mar­vel at: The South­ern­ers were Demo­crats.

For nearly three dec­ades, be­fore and after World War II, a con­ser­vat­ive co­ali­tion of Re­pub­lic­an law­makers dom­in­ated Con­gress in com­mon cause with the 125-odd House and Sen­ate Demo­crats from the old Con­fed­er­acy.

Amer­ic­an lore tracks the birth of the al­li­ance to the car ride taken by a group of South­ern chair­men from the White House to the Cap­it­ol on Feb. 5, 1937. Pres­id­ent Roosevelt had summoned them to hear his plans to pack the Su­preme Court with six new justices friendly to the New Deal and his policies. The South­ern­ers bridled at this pres­id­en­tial power grab. “Boys,” said Rep. Hat­ton Sum­ners of Texas, the chair­man of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, as they drove up Pennsylvania Av­en­ue, “here is where I cash in my chips.”

Since Re­con­struc­tion, the South had been identi­fy­ing bright young plant­ers, law­yers, and busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ives, send­ing them to Con­gress, and re­turn­ing them, year after year. The scars of war and oc­cu­pa­tion were too raw for the re­gion to em­brace the party of Lin­coln, and so these young men were Demo­crats. In the ri­gid seni­or­ity sys­tem by which Con­gress op­er­ated, they even­tu­ally be­came com­mit­tee chair­men — ti­tans who ran things their way, and in their own good time. It was the only real way that the South — largely rur­al and re­tarded eco­nom­ic­ally — could in­flu­ence the na­tion’s af­fairs. South­ern Demo­crats routinely chaired the most im­port­ant com­mit­tees: Ways and Means, Armed Ser­vices, Ap­pro­pri­ations, Ju­di­ciary, and many oth­ers.

The “South­ern Demo­crats rep­res­en­ted a power­ful es­tab­lish­ment,” wrote former Speak­er Carl Al­bert of Ok­lahoma, in his auto­bi­o­graphy. It was “an in­ter­lock­ing net­work of landown­ers, fin­an­ci­ers, in­dus­tri­al­ists, and pro­fes­sion­als, all men of power, all men of white flesh.”

In the shock of the Great De­pres­sion, the South sup­por­ted the New Deal. But it viewed FDR’s will­ing­ness to take blacks, Jews, and Cath­ol­ics in­to the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion with sus­pi­cion, and it bridled at the party’s sup­port of an­ti­lynch­ing le­gis­la­tion. Be­gin­ning with the Court-pack­ing fight, South­ern­ers joined with the Re­pub­lic­ans to block Roosevelt’s do­mest­ic agenda. The 100  South­ern Demo­crats in the House and two dozen South­ern sen­at­ors routinely al­lied them­selves with the Re­pub­lic­ans who, strug­gling to find polit­ic­al trac­tion amid the New Deal’s pop­ular­ity, were con­tent to play the two wings of the Demo­crat­ic Party against each oth­er.

Re­pub­lic­ans worked with South­ern Demo­crats to lim­it fed­er­al au­thor­ity, taxes, reg­u­la­tion, and spend­ing, but there also were times when they worked and com­prom­ised with the North’s lib­er­al Demo­crats. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 could not have passed Con­gress without the back­ing of con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans such as Sen. Ever­ett Dirk­sen of Illinois and Rep. Charlie Hal­leck of In­di­ana. A Sen­ate of­fice build­ing is named for Dirk­sen, but few re­mem­ber the cour­age of Rep. Clar­ence Brown, a Re­pub­lic­an from Ohio, who checked him­self out of the hos­pit­al so he could cast a cru­cial vote for black free­dom in the House Rules Com­mit­tee. “Look out for tricks,” Brown warned civil-rights lead­er Clar­ence Mitchell, and then went home and died in Au­gust 1965.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans found it ful­filling, even when in the minor­ity, to de­vel­op an ex­pert­ise that brought them high re­gard in Wash­ing­ton and the clout to ad­vance the in­terests of their con­stitu­ents.

Rep. John Byrnes of Wis­con­sin, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, had a typ­ic­ally strong re­la­tion­ship with his chair­man, Demo­crat Wil­bur Mills of Arkan­sas. “It was a pleas­ant op­er­a­tion. You wer­en’t con­stantly fight­ing on philo­soph­ic­al or oth­er grounds and is­sues,” Byrnes re­called in an or­al his­tory. “You were try­ing to look for ways where we could com­prom­ise dif­fer­ences and move along [le­gis­la­tion].”¦ It was part of the thing that made life worth­while and in­ter­est­ing. You knew that you did leave some kind of an im­print, be­cause any idea that fi­nally de­veloped in­to a con­sensus, you knew that you were part of that pro­cess.”

The ser­pent in the garden was air con­di­tion­ing.

The de­vel­op­ment of win­dow units and res­id­en­tial cent­ral-cool­ing sys­tems trans­formed the South and the South­w­est in the lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tury. Only 18 per­cent of Flor­ida’s homes were air-con­di­tioned in 1960, Polsby dis­covered, but 84 per­cent were cooled by 1980, as were thou­sands of new factor­ies, shop­ping malls, and of­fice build­ings across the Sun Belt.

Mil­lions of white-col­lar Amer­ic­ans, who had been tak­ing winter va­ca­tions in Flor­ida or Geor­gia or Ari­zona but loathed the hellish sum­mers, were mov­ing or re­tir­ing to air-con­di­tioned homes in new, low-tax sub­urb­an and re­sort com­munit­ies. North­ern-born mil­it­ary vet­er­ans re­turned to the South­ern com­munit­ies where they had been sta­tioned dur­ing the war. Many of the mi­grants brought Re­pub­lic­an sym­path­ies; oth­ers had polit­ic­al am­bi­tion and, see­ing their paths blocked by the Demo­crat­ic court­house gangs, joined the GOP.

Re­pub­lic­ans began to pick up South­ern seats in Con­gress. The first was in Flor­ida in 1954, the next in Texas, then North­ern Vir­gin­ia. By the early 1970s, Polsby found, Re­pub­lic­ans held sev­en of the 10 wealth­i­est con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts in the South, as well as 11 of the 15 dis­tricts with the highest num­bers of new­comers. Fu­ture House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers Newt Gin­grich and Dick Armey planted the GOP flag in the raw new sub­urbs out­side At­lanta and Dal­las. When Demo­crat Wil­li­am Colmer of Mis­sis­sippi re­tired from the House in 1972, his le­gis­lat­ive as­sist­ant went home to Pas­ca­goula, switched his re­gis­tra­tion, and won elec­tion to the House as a Re­pub­lic­an. His name was Trent Lott, and he went on to serve as House whip and Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er.

For nat­ive white South­ern­ers op­posed to the civil-rights move­ment, ra­cial ten­sion fueled the Re­pub­lic­ans’ ap­peal.

After Pres­id­ent John­son signed the civil-rights bill in the sum­mer of 1964, he fam­ously told his aide, Bill Moy­ers, that they had just “de­livered the South to the Re­pub­lic­ans for a long time to come.” In­deed, LBJ trounced Re­pub­lic­an Barry Gold­wa­ter in a land­slide that fall, but the Ari­zona con­ser­vat­ive took six states in the Sun Belt: Alabama, Ari­zona, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, Mis­sis­sippi, and South Car­o­lina.

The Gold­wa­ter cam­paign was a polit­ic­al mile­stone, unit­ing con­ser­vat­ives from the South and South­w­est, giv­ing birth to Ron­ald Re­agan as a na­tion­al lead­er, shat­ter­ing the Demo­crat­ic “sol­id South,” and at­tract­ing eth­nic Cath­ol­ics in the North and Mid­w­est who, 16 years later, would be­come well-known as Re­agan Demo­crats.

“The move­ment was something deep, a change or a re­flec­tion of change in Amer­ic­an life that qual­i­fied as more than polit­ics — it was his­tory,” wrote polit­ic­al journ­al­ist Theodore White, with typ­ic­al foresight in 1965.

The im­port of this chain of events, in terms of today’s polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion, was the way it muted con­ser­vat­ive voices in the Demo­crat­ic caucus.

Shrewdly, the GOP cut deals with black Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, us­ing the re­dis­trict­ing pro­cess to squeeze minor­ity voters in­to re­l­at­ively few dis­tricts. The cre­ation of black-ma­jor­ity dis­tricts guar­an­teed that Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans would win con­gres­sion­al seats, but it left more white-dom­in­ated dis­tricts open to Re­pub­lic­an op­por­tun­ists.

“The re­gis­tra­tion of black voters strengthened the lib­er­al fac­tions of the Demo­crat­ic Party” in the South, Polsby noted, “and en­cour­aged con­ser­vat­ive voters and lead­ers to desert the Demo­crats and be­come Re­pub­lic­ans.”

The num­ber of South­ern votes in the House Demo­crat­ic Caucus slipped from 100 in 1960 to 54 in 1998 and 37 in 2010, and most of those that re­mained were black-ma­jor­ity seats. White South­ern con­ser­vat­ives made up 62 per­cent of the House Demo­crat­ic Caucus in 1972, but just 7 per­cent in 1996, ac­cord­ing to Polsby. Now the num­ber is al­most cer­tainly lower.

“The South­ern Demo­crat­ic bloc just withered away, and the Re­pub­lic­an Party kept track­ing out to the right,” Poole says.

As South­ern con­ser­vat­ives fled, or were driv­en from, the Demo­crat­ic Party, they were re­placed in Con­gress by the now-fa­mil­i­ar cast of lib­er­al baby boomers, em­powered minor­it­ies, and vet­er­ans of the civil-rights and an­ti­war move­ments who came to dom­in­ate the caucus. George McGov­ern’s quix­ot­ic 1972 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign was an or­gan­iz­ing vehicle for the new Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion, much like the Gold­wa­ter move­ment had been for con­ser­vat­ives eight years earli­er. There were South­ern mod­er­ates who had in­flu­ence in Con­gress — men like Sens. Sam Nunn of Geor­gia and Al Gore of Ten­ness­ee — but they were far more lib­er­al than, and had nowhere the in­flu­ence of, the South­ern­ers who pre­ceded them (men like Demo­crat­ic Sens. Richard Rus­sell of Geor­gia and John Sten­nis of Mis­sis­sippi).

“It is not in­tu­it­ively ob­vi­ous that a sub­stan­tial gain of seats in the House by the Re­pub­lic­an Party would be a prox­im­ate cause of the lib­er­al­iz­a­tion of the House, but that, more or less, is what happened,” Polsby con­cluded.

Like today’s tea party con­ser­vat­ives, the lib­er­als saw no need to com­prom­ise. By the mid-1970s, after Rep. Al Ull­man of Ore­gon had suc­ceeded Mills as the chair­man of Ways and Means, the com­mit­tee Re­pub­lic­ans tasted none of the sat­is­fac­tion that John Byrnes had re­cor­ded a gen­er­a­tion earli­er. “The Re­pub­lic­ans feel cut out,” one Ways and Means mem­ber told con­gres­sion­al schol­ar Cath­er­ine Rud­der. “The com­mit­tee is po­lar­ized. It’s par­tis­an.”

Demo­crat­ic or­tho­doxy was ri­gidly en­forced. Chair­men who strayed from the script got dumped. Ju­ni­or mem­bers mon­itored the ac­tions of their lead­ers, and moved against them in the caucus.

The House Rules Com­mit­tee chair­man, Joe Moakley of Mas­sachu­setts, cap­tured the Demo­crat­ic at­ti­tude to­ward their col­leagues across the aisle: “We’ve got the votes. Screw you.”

Says Orn­stein: “You had a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ing that was ar­rog­ant, com­pla­cent, con­des­cend­ing, and cas­u­ally cor­rupt.”

Enter Newt. Stage right.

Gin­grich was 35 when he ar­rived in Con­gress in 1978. He was bril­liant, glib, au­da­cious.

To Demo­crats, as then-Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Jim Wright of Texas wrote in his di­ary, Gin­grich was “a shrill and shame­less little dem­agogue.”

Gin­grich may well have agreed. “One of the great prob­lems we have in the Re­pub­lic­an Party is that we don’t en­cour­age you to be nasty,” he said. “We en­cour­age you to be neat, obed­i­ent and loy­al and faith­ful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a camp­fire but are lousy in polit­ics.”

His words rang true to a core group of young­er Re­pub­lic­ans — they called them­selves the Con­ser­vat­ive Op­por­tun­ity So­ci­ety — who felt, as Rep. Robert Walk­er of Pennsylvania put it, “in­creas­ingly frus­trated” with a “Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship that seemed to be more ac­com­mod­a­tion­ist.”

Gin­grich set out to be nasty. Boy, he was good at it. He se­cured his place in his­tory as the vis­ion­ary lead­er who helped his party seize con­trol of the House in 1994, end­ing 40 years in the minor­ity. But his con­gres­sion­al leg­acy also in­cluded three ruined speak­er­ships, a gov­ern­ment shut­down, a dis­astrous pres­id­en­tial im­peach­ment, the pub­lic dis­grace of re­spec­ted lead­ers from both parties, and a deep pois­on­ing of the at­mo­sphere in Con­gress.

“The prag­mat­ism, the prac­tic­al situ­ation is that you’ve got to get votes from the oth­er side to make any­thing go,” said former Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois, the man whom Gin­grich suc­ceeded as the GOP lead­er in the House. “Well, Newt, let’s face it. His per­son­al­ity wasn’t ex­actly that type.”

Air con­di­tion­ing trans­formed the South. A trans­formed South sent Gin­grich to Con­gress. And with Gin­grich came, Polsby noted, the cur­rent “era of ill feel­ings.”

Those old cronies, Wil­bur Mills and John Byrnes, would not re­cog­nize today’s faster, mean­er Con­gress. House and Sen­ate mem­bers no longer dally in the cloak­room or on the floor, trad­ing stor­ies and pork-bar­rel pro­jects. They are too busy tweet­ing their dis­ciples, or rais­ing money for the next cam­paign.

And not just their own. Con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates, who used to mount dis­tinct­ive, per­son­al­ized cru­sades for of­fice, in­creas­ingly find them­selves as cogs in na­tion­al, par­lia­ment­ary-style elec­tions. The lucky ones draw high rat­ings from the na­tion­al su­per PACS and are re­war­ded with a de­luge of cash. In time, as they find fa­vor with donors and lob­by­ists, they raise money for col­leagues through their own fun­drais­ing com­mit­tees.

Po­lar­iz­a­tion has raised the stakes. The House has seen three “wave” elec­tions in the past dec­ade alone — in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Al­though most polit­ics is still loc­al, and re­dis­trict­ing or long­time ser­vice has in­su­lated many mem­bers from get­ting tossed them­selves, a shift in party con­trol can drastic­ally af­fect their in­flu­ence and the suc­cess of their agenda.

The Gin­grich re­volu­tion of 1994 “ushered in an era where, in al­most any elec­tion, the ma­jor­ity can change,” Orn­stein says. “So the stakes are high­er. Be­fore, the game was played between the 40-yard lines; now it is played from goal­post to goal­post. And so the mind­set shifts.” Adds his sidekick Mann: “The pres­sure is enorm­ous to stick with the herd, be­cause so much of Con­gress today is about stra­tegic, par­tis­an, team play.”

Of course, there is no “I” in “team.” Today’s law­makers put their in­di­vidu­al­ism on hold when they enter Con­gress, and they of­ten take or­ders from le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers and their party’s power­ful con­stitu­en­cies. None dares dis­please the spec­tat­ors in the press box or the bleach­ers. A swift scour­ging, on talk ra­dio or cable tele­vi­sion, awaits those who de­vi­ate from the party line or com­prom­ise on is­sues. The threat of a primary chal­lenge, fun­ded and fueled from the ideo­lo­gic­al edges, keeps mem­bers in line.

Sturdy Re­pub­lic­ans such as former Sen. Robert Ben­nett of Utah and former Rep. Mi­chael Castle of Delaware and Demo­crats such as Sen. Joe Lieber­man of Con­necti­c­ut, who once graced his party’s na­tion­al tick­et, have been hu­mi­li­ated in a party primary or caucus in re­cent years. Lieber­man sur­vived as an
in­de­pend­ent, but Ben­nett and Castle didn’t, and their de­feats haunt the Cap­it­ol like Mar­ley’s ghost.

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!’ “

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. 

Contributions by Peter Bell

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.