Editorials

Polarization likely to only worsen

Individualism is dead.

That's the stark take-away from an analysis of congressional voting records by the National Journal.

Since 1982, the Journal has combed congressional votes on key issues and rated legislators' records. Last year, it reviewed 95 significant votes in both chambers using a relative, not absolute, measure. In other words, it seeks to compare members with one another, so, for example, a liberal score of 70 means that member is more liberal than 70 percent of his or her colleagues.

In analyzing votes cast in 2010, the Journal concluded that the level of polarization was the highest in three decades of measurement. 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 House of Representatives was similarly divided.

In 1982, for comparison, 36 Senate Democrats scored as conservative as Lowell Weicker, the most liberal Republican, and 24 Senate Republicans were as liberal as the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky. In other words, 60 percent of the Senate was somewhere in the middle.

Since then, the "the ideological outliers have been purged," I was told recently by Ronald Brownstein, political director of the Journal and author of "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America." "The story of the last three decades of American politics is unstinting polarization, a fusion of ideology and partisanship."

The trend is unmistakable and raises two questions: What accounts for the change? And is it necessarily negative?

Brownstein argued that a combination of factors explains the purge. First, he pointed toward changes in party leadership that facilitate ascendance based not on seniority but on the support of colleagues. This puts more pressure on legislators to toe a party line.

Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said members of Congress were polarized as a result of what he called "the great sorting out."

"Congressional districts have gotten redder and bluer, and people have chosen to live with like-minded folks," Bennett told me. "Add to that the phenomenon of closed primaries that occur at odd times [such as the middle of August] with extremely low turnout [around 4 percent], and you're left with only the most committed members of the two parties choosing their congressional and Senate candidates."

And let's not forget the rise of the partisan media.

"The Internet, talk radio, cable TV all provide huge amplifiers for angry voices, which has created a system in which bad behavior [hyper-partisanship] is rewarded and bipartisanship is punished," said Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist.

To what effect?

Political pragmatists are lacking in representation even as more Americans identify their general approach to issues as "moderate" than very liberal or conservative or somewhat liberal or conservative.

Will it change? Probably not until it gets worse.

Contact Smerconish, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, at smerconish.com.

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