Pulling Apart

February 25, 2011

The fact that Congress is becoming increasingly polarized is nothing new. A recent article in the National Journal, however, was head turning in its historical analysis of just how deep the divisions have grown compared to previous eras in American politics.

According to the National Journal, Congress was more polarized last year than in any other year since National Journal began compiling its vote ratings. Some of the statistics are quite stark:

For only the second time since 1982, when NJ began calculating the ratings in their current form, every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than every Senate Republican—and every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than every Senate Democrat. …

The overall level of congressional polarization last year was the highest the index has recorded, because the House was much more divided in 2010 than it was in 1999. Back then, more than half of the chamber’s members compiled voting records between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. In 2010, however, the overlap between the parties in the House was less than in any previous index.

Just five House Republicans in 2010 generated vote ratings more liberal than the most conservative House Democrat, Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Just four Democrats produced ratings more conservative than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao of Louisiana. Every other House Republican produced a more conservative vote rating than every other House Democrat, even though a substantial number of those Democrats pursued a relatively moderate course overall. Of the nine members who were outliers last year, only one—Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina—is still in Congress. That makes him the only lawmaker in the House or Senate this year to have a 2010 vote rating out of sync with his party.

The Journal’s analysis of why polarization matters and how it impacts the way that Congress works was also interesting and spot on:

For most of American history, the two parties operated as ramshackle coalitions that harbored diverse and even antithetical views. Each party’s Senate caucus housed ideological antagonists, such as progressive Democratic titan Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and segregationist stalwart Richard Russell of Georgia, or New Right Republican firebrand Jesse Helms of North Carolina and silk-stocking New York City liberal Jacob Javits. Such contrasts are not extinct. But since the early 1980s, they have vastly diminished as the differences within each party have narrowed and the distance between them has widened. …

John Danforth, a moderate Republican senator from Missouri, was finishing his first term in 1982. He remembers that soon after he arrived, Russell Long of Louisiana, the venerable Democratic powerhouse who chaired the Senate Finance Committee, gave him a singular piece of advice. “ ‘Don’t ever hold grudges, because your strongest opponent today could be your ally tomorrow,’ ” Danforth, who retired in 1994, recalled in a recent interview.

That advice made sense in the Senate of those years, because both caucuses were much more diverse and unpredictable than they are today. In NJ’s 1982 vote ratings, fully 36 Senate Democrats compiled records at least as conservative as the most liberal Republican, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. From the other direction, 24 Senate Republicans compiled voting records at least as liberal as the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska. Zorinsky, in fact, received a rating exactly as conservative as Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential campaign ignited the modern conservative revival.

The senators with voting records that fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat represented a pool of idiosyncratic, unattached pieces that could be assembled and reassembled in constantly shifting coalitions to pass or block legislation. In such a fluid environment, it virtually defied conceptualization to define a typical Democrat or typical Republican senator.

There is just too much good data in the article to recap in this post. Please go ahead and take a look.