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.