It is popular for political commentators (like me) to bemoan the intransigence of the elected officials who represent the two major parties in Washington. We often talk about “gridlock,” government “dysfunction” and Congress’s inability to get anything done. When Congress does take action, we express surprise. Such is the dominant news narrative of the last few years.
Certainly the imagery is not without merit. News stories reviewing Congress’s activities in 2011, 2012 and 2013 concluded that these were historically “unproductive” years in terms of legislation. We remember the government shutdown last fall. We’ve watched one chamber pass legislation (sometimes multiple times) with the certain knowledge that neither the specific piece of legislation nor anything roughly resembling it will get so much as a preliminary hearing before a committee in the other chamber. If the standard of efficiency is how much work actually gets completed, one might say that Congress, at present, is among the clearest examples of government waste ever observed.
There is, however, a reverse side to this coin.
What we have now is a culmination of a steadily increasing polarization of the American electorate, a polarization whose seeds were planted (arguably) with the Republican strategy to break the solid Democratic South developed in the late 1960s or early 1970s and launched with particular vigor during the Reagan years (yes, Virginia, the Deep South was once all blue). The messaging strategy, focusing on various aspects of what have become known as the “culture wars,” has proven extraordinarily successful. The South didn’t merely “break” . . . it flipped.
Today’s divisions between the Republican and Democratic parties are significant and relatively stable. We are offered clear, uncompromising alternatives on a variety of issues. Not every issue, to be sure (and some might argue that the most well-known differences are about some of the least important issues), but on many issues that appear to motivate voters to choose sides.
And choose they do. Not only in conversation; at the polls.
One of the noteworthy developments in U.S. politics at the national level over the last 16 years has been the relatively sustained and remarkable increase in turnout. This graph from the Center for Politics makes the case neatly:
Arguably, this increase in turnout is a result of the increased stakes in the elections, stakes increased by the increasingly sharp distinction between the two parties. As the fruits of refined party ideologies in the 1980s and 1990s took hold, as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats moved onto the Endangered Species list and then, according to recent reports, became extinct, voters awakened to choices that
truly seemed to matter.
And so . . . they (we) have voted.
By at least one standard, then, all of this partisan conflict is a good thing. It has encouraged us to become involved.
Next: Looking Ahead: Representative Ryan’s Budget and the Next Clear Choice