How polarized is America today? Not all that polarized by historical standards. In 1856, a South Carolina Congressman beat a Massachusetts Senator half to death with his cane in the Senate chamber and received dozens of new canes from appreciative fans. In 1905, Idaho miners bombed the house of a former governor who had tried to break their union. In 1965, an antiVietnam War activist stationed himself outside the office of the Secretary of Defense and, holding his year-old daughter in his arms, set himself on fire. (She lived; he did not.) By that measure, a Rush Limbaugh rant isn't particularly divisive. Americans may yell at one another about politics, but we mostly leave our guns and bombs at home, which is an improvement.
What really defines our political era, as Ronald Brownstein notes in his book The Second Civil War, is not the polarization of Americans but the polarization of American government. In the country at large, the disputes are real but manageable. But in Washington, crossing party lines to resolve them has become excruciatingly rare.
The result, unsurprisingly, is that Americans don't like Washington very much. According to a CNN poll conducted in mid-February, 62% of Americans say most members of Congress do not deserve re-election, up 10 points from 2006. Public skepticism about the Federal Government and its ability to solve problems is nothing new, but the discontent is greater today than it has been in at least a decade and a half. Witness the growth of the Tea Party movement, a diffuse conglomeration of forces that have coalesced around nothing so much as a shared hostility toward Washington. Or the Feb. 15 announcement by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh a man who almost made it onto three presidential tickets that he would not stand for re-election because "Congress is not operating as it should" and "even in a time of enormous challenge, the people's business is not getting done."
This revulsion toward the nation's capital is understandable. But it makes the problem worse. From health care to energy to the deficit, addressing the U.S.'s big challenges requires vigorous government action. When government doesn't take that action, it loses people's faith. And without public faith, government action is harder still. Call it Washington's vicious circle.
Breaking this circle of public mistrust and government failure requires progress on solving big problems, which requires more cooperation between the parties. But before we can begin to break that circle, we need to understand how it developed in the first place.
The Death of Moderates
The vicious circle has its roots in the great sorting out of American politics that has occurred over the past 40 years. In the middle of the 20th century, America's two major parties were Whitmanesque: they contradicted themselves; they contained multitudes. As late as 1969, the historian Richard Hofstadter declared that the Democratic and Republican parties were each "a compound, a hodgepodge, of various and conflicting interests."
But in the 1960s and '70s, as liberal Northern Democrats rallied behind civil rights, abortion rights, environmentalism and a more dovish foreign policy, conservative Southern Democrats began drifting into the GOP. And as the Republican Party shifted rightward, its Northern liberals became Democrats. Whereas many members of Congress had once been cross-pressured forced to balance the demands of a more liberal party and a more conservative region, or vice versa now party, region and ideology were increasingly aligned. Washington politics became less a game of Rubik's Cube and more a game of shirts vs. skins.
The first shirts-and-skins President was Ronald Reagan, the first truly conservative Republican elected in 50 years. But it was only after Reagan and his GOP successor, George H.W. Bush, left office that congressional Republicans realized they could use political polarization to stymie government and use government failure to win elections. And with that realization, vicious-circle politics started to become an art form.
In the 1980s, discrediting government was not the strategy of the congressional GOP, for two reasons. First, the sorting out hadn't fully sorted itself out yet: the Senate alone boasted moderate Republicans from blue states like Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Oregon, where activist government weren't dirty words. These moderates who met every Wednesday for lunch chaired powerful committees, served in the party leadership and helped cut big bipartisan deals like the 1986 tax-reform bill, which simplified the tax code, and the 1990 Clean Air Act, which set new limits on pollution. Second, because Republicans occupied the White House, making government look foolish and corrupt risked making the party look foolish and corrupt too.