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The Bipartisan Bridge - Background

HOW WE GOT HERE

 

To craft solutions that could serve as a lifeline to a more constructive and salutary environment, it is necessary to consider how we have landed in our present predicament. Although myriad factors have contributed to it, some have been especially impactful. It should also be noted that even though the current climate has become the bane of popular culture, there is, at least, a silver lining. Of the many forces that have accelerated degeneration since the 1960s, a few of them are rooted in very positive developments.

Demographic Change

One force of change was demographics. The electorate became younger in the 1960s, as the baby boom generation reached voting age. In addition to their voting tendencies, their vocal presence and interests propelled a divergence in American culture and the priorities for our government. Among its most obvious impacts were the debates and developments surrounding civil rights and the Vietnam War, and the rejection of many traditional norms. Also since the 1960s, our population has become more racially and ethnically diverse.

24/7 Media Deluge

A second reason was the impact of the media and access to information, first via television since the 1960s, then cable since the 1980s, and ultimately the Internet since the 1990s. Governmental actions and debates that were virtually hidden from public view in the past became accessible, and entirely transparent, to all Americans.

The increased awareness, and now the unmitigated deluge of information, has stirred passions on all sides of issues, increased government accountability, and encouraged people at all levels of society to become active in a process from which they had effectively been excluded in the past.

Two-Party Control

A third factor, which has not in any way been exclusive to the past four decades, is the lack of a viable third party in America. If there were three or more viable parties, such that no single party had a majority in Congress nor among the Presidential electorate, then each faction would need to maintain positive relations with all parties for the sake of forming coalitions. These would, at a minimum, be formed on an issue-by-issue basis, to succeed in specific policy objectives, if not for broader purposes. Instead, our nation has developed an attitude akin to "it's either us or them" in terms of winning elections and establishing policies that appeal to one's base of voters.

Unfamiliarity Among Members


A fourth factor, which also has a long history, is that Congress is so large, with limited opportunity to develop collegiality. With 535 Members, it is easy for a Congressmember or Senator to have no contact with a sizeable number of his or her colleagues. Some Members serving concurrently have not even met; hallway greetings such as, "Hello, Mr. Chairman" are often used as a safe alternative to invoking the wrong name.

As often occurs, unfamiliarity breeds contempt. With less contact, there is less opportunity to bridge the gaps of division. Unfamiliarity has increased in recent years because of the ease of air travel. The past practice of remaining in Washington DC and engaging each other, including across party lines, socially over the weekend along with their families has given way to retreating to one’s district, returning to Washington for only an abbreviated Tuesday-through-Thursday work week. There is much less of an opportunity to get to know each other. Mutual respect and professional courtesy suffer as a result. Such deficiencies take a harsh toll on the legislative processes.

The Composition of Congress & the Impact of Redistricting


A fifth factor in the escalation of combativeness and gridlock has a particularly profound impact: The composition of the Congress itself.
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Prior to the middle-1960s, only a very elite slice of society had even the hope or possibility of being elected to higher office. Officeholders were, relatively, cut from the same cloth. Despite the language of our Declaration of Independence, the government was not by, for, and of all the people. As statistics on past Members of Congress indicate, it was principally owned and operated by males….who were white…. who were middle aged or older….and who had enough money to purchase power and enjoy the luxury of public life.

Although reasonable minds differed on issues, sometimes resulting in legendary battles, the spectrum of fractiousness was generally narrower than today, and compromise on legislative matters was an achievable, essential element of the process. Following even the harshest fights and filibusters, comity usually prevailed. Destroying each other's character or career was rare, and it was unthinkable to shut down the Federal government for lack of agreeing on a budget. Their pals at the country club wouldn't hear of it.

         

The collaborative nature of politicians was evidence of a greater respect for political opponents and the institutions in which they cohabited. With the transformation of our society that began in the 1960s, the opportunity to participate in our government was vastly expanded to millions who had traditionally been excluded. This change came about partly due to the Voting Rights Act, but equally due to demographics, the mobilization of political factions, and a new popular expectation of fairness and inclusion.

The result was that racial and ethnic minorities, women, and young Americans in their 20s and early 30s became politically empowered and ascended to elected office in numbers previously unattainable. Imagine how the leaders of the Whig Party would have taken to the idea of a set of meeting rooms set aside just for Congresswomen, right by the House floor!

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Now, governmental leaders are characterized by lifestyles, historical backgrounds, and heartfelt political philosophies that are as diverse as those of the constituents that they represent. In this sense, American democracy is flourishing, as it has begun to live up to the inclusionary standards that it set for itself hundreds of years ago.

However, as some districts are crafted to facilitate this trend, nearby districts are then able to concentrate people of very contradictory mindsets and political ideologies. As like-minded constituents are grouped into districts that are heavily skewed toward one political party or the other, many officials now arrive in Congress (and state legislatures) with hard-line inclinations. Some have built their political careers by opposing certain interests that are well represented by other factions, and by promoting divisiveness, distrust, and intransigence. Some have even campaigned on promises to overturn precedent and traditional process, restrain the Federal government, shut down whole Federal departments, and refuse to compromise with any opposing forces. In such cases, when officials arrive in office with the stated intention of waging partisan battles, even the prospects of compromise and negotiation are, to them, repugnant.

The result of redistricting with party-centric concentrations is that the only contested election, for all practical purposes, is the primary, since the other party stands little or no chance of victory in a general election. The candidates in this situation push toward the extremes, and the candidates that do so are the ones who succeed in the primary. This dynamic feeds the divisiveness within Congress, since, in the large number of districts where this occurs, the more extreme candidate wins the primary, and then the general election.  The cure to this problem lies in redistricting reform, which can take any of many characteristics, and is being explored in some states.

 

The activism and political inclusiveness of the 1960s, as well as the reaction to Watergate, brought a new style of Member to Congress in the 1970s. But then, the counter-reaction to them brought many conservative Members, plus President Reagan, to office. During the middle- and late-1980s, many liberal Members were elected to Congress, partly in response to Reagan's governance. President Clinton's election to office could be seen partly as a continuation of this effect. Then, in the 1990s, a wave of conservative Republicans was elected, partly in reaction to the resurrection of the agendas of liberals, such as the push for universal health care and the new policy toward gay people in the military. With each new wave, the rhetoric became more strident, and policy positions became more intractable.

The effect of these waves has been both facilitated and compounded by the 1990 and 2000 legislative redistricting maps. In many states, Congressional districts have been drawn with an eye toward consolidating higher percentages of Democrats or Republicans into heavily weighted districts, rather than creating more competitive districts, often to protect the incumbents. One effect of this has been to make the primary election the more important race, forcing candidates to be more extreme in their views to win their party's primary, and then easily winning the general election. Vituperative campaigns often leave the victor with what they perceive as a mandate to carry the parsimony with them to their new jobs. The result is legislative polarization, as extremes of both parties often refuse to compromise, communicate, or even exhibit basic mutual respect.

 
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