The Democratic Divide: Politics in a Polarized World

It’s that time of year again! The next two days we’ll be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Follow along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.

This morning Joshua Huder, Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute, joined us to explain a phenomenon on the mind of everyone in American government: the politically polarized state of Congress.

The phenomenon has roots that stretch far back before the government shutdown due to sequestration last fall. The electoral map of 1976, Huder showed, has been blown apart. The South used to be a Democratic bastion, and the majority of the country didn’t have any strong leaning. In contrast, by the time of the 1994 Republican Revolution almost the entire country had strong political leanings: the Democrats were almost completely absent in the South — now concentrated in cities instead — while Republicans had come to dominate almost all of the land between them.

Explaining why this happened is difficult and an area of much academic research, Huder said. Some people point to the echo-chamber effect of social media and cable TV, wherein voters only see and hear from likeminded people. Whatever the cause, the effect on Congress has been profound.

“With such a polarized electorate, only extreme candidates,” Huder explained, “can win primaries now. And because Congresspersons generally have safe seats today, they have no incentive to reach across the aisle. Further, they have to tow the party line or be at risk of losing campaign funds.”

To illustrate, consider the national debt. The national debt has been generally increasing since the 1980s despite an improved tax code. Forecasts show that if unchecked by a growing economy, more tax revenue, or less spending, the the interest on the national debt could eventually consume the Federal budget. Further, entitlements such as Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security are growing as Baby Boomers age, yet their are comparatively fewer young workers to support them.

Right now, the House of Representatives is Republican and the Senate is Democratic, and each house of Congress has diametrically opposed solution. The House wants to cut discretionary spending (It’s interesting to note, however, that this proposal does not include what is by far the largest discretionary line item: defense) and the Senate wants to raise revenue (i.e., end tax loopholes, which could roughly double the amount of money collected). The problem with each approach, Huder pointed out, is that it’s absolutely unacceptable to the other house of congress. Worse, if either house fully got its way, there could be profound negative effects. Huge numbers of people depend on Federal programs like SNAP (food stamps), which the House would prospectively cut; the Senate, in closing loopholes, would effectively increase tax so much as to pass an anti-stimulus plan. And so the deadlock continues.

This, lamented Huder, might be our new normal.

During Q&A, I asked Huder what can break the cycle (perhaps a Constitutional amendment to change the Electoral College, which might empower a third party stalemate-breaker?), and whether any other countries have successfully dealt with this. Huder is doubtful that a third party would work, noting that even if we created one, American history is replete with instances of third parties being absorbed into one of the major parties (the Tea Party most recently). And, Huder added, other countries have broken their deadlocks, but usually through a monarchical degree–the very thing our system of government was set up to prevent.

Another possible solution is time. Huder asserts that the Democrats may be betting that time is on their side–that eventually immigrants (who are usually Democratic) will increase until there are enough new voters to tip the scales in the Democrats’ favor. Huder is skeptical, however, that that would work. Parties are adaptable, and the Republicans can seek immigrant votes as well.

Do you agree that Congressional deadlock is a problem? (Not everyone does. Some state and city governments are taking action when Congress can’t or won’t.) What constructive solutions does the NextGen of leaders propose?

Cross-posted at iContrarian.

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