American politics has become tribal

February 25th, 2011

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That’s the message of the National Journal voting scores coming out this week for the 2010 Congress. National Journal has been ranking Members of Congress on key votes for nearly 30 years. (I developed National Journal’s ranking system back in 1982.)

2010 is some kind of a milestone: the 2010 Congress was the most polarized since the vote ratings began. On key congressional votes last year, every Senate Democrat had a more liberal voting record than every Senate Republican. And every Senate Republican had a more conservative voting record than every Senate Democrat.

That’s tribalism: total separation. No mixing, no intermarriage. And sometimes tribal warfare. Like what’s happening right now in Libya.

The House of Representatives? Nearly as bad. Only five Republicans in 2010 had vote ratings more liberal than the most conservative House Democrat, Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Taylor was defeated in November. Only four Democrats were more conservative than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao of Louisiana. Cao lost, too.

What happened to the nine outliers—the five relatively liberal Republicans and the four relatively conservative Democrats? All but one is gone. The sole survivor? Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina.

It’s the culmination of a political trend that’s been going on for nearly fifty years. Liberal Republicans have gone the way of the dodo bird. Some became Democrats (former Mayor John Lindsay of New York, former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania). Some became Independents (former Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, current Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island). Are there any moderate Republicans left? Two are clinging to the rockbound coast of Maine (Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins). They could be washed out to sea in the next Republican primary.

Conservative Democrats used to thrive in the South. But they, too, became an endangered species when their habitat turned Republican. One of them was former Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. He was last sighted delivering a fiery denunciation of the Democratic Party and endorsing George W. Bush for re-election at the 2004 Republican convention. The leading moderate Democrat in the Senate, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary in 2006. He was re-elected as an Independent. He’s leaving the Senate after next year.

There are still plenty of moderates in the electorate—one third of Americans, according to the Gallup Poll. But they are no longer represented in Congress. In their new report for Third Way, “The Still Vital Center,” former Clinton Administration officials, Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, recommend structural reforms to diversify the base of both parties. One is nonpartisan redistricting. That would reduce the predominance of House districts that are safe for one party.

More competitive districts might drive legislators toward the center. They could not win elections by appealing only to one party. One reason moderates have disappeared is that we have had a sequence of “wave elections”—a Democratic wave in 2006 and 2008, a Republican wave in 2010. Whenever a wave hits, the first incumbents to get swept away are those from the disadvantaged party who represent marginal districts Republicans in marginal districts got swept away in ’06 and ’08. Democrats in marginal districts got swept away last November.

Legislators in competitive districts also have to worry about primaries. If Republicans stray too far from the conservative line because that’s where their constituency is, Republican primary voters may oust them. That’s what happened to Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware last year. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts is facing a Republican primary opponent next year. It happens to Democrats, too. The left tried to purge Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas in the Democratic primary last year. Sen. John Tester of Montana may have the same problem next year.

Galston and Kamarck also recommend open primaries, where any voter can participate. It’s a good idea, and it’s now being tried in California, a state that has been paralyzed by bitter partisanship. But we don’t yet know if many partisans will choose to cross party lines to “save” moderates of the other party.

The problem is not just in Congress. The electorate has become more polarized as well. Last year, Gallup reported that President Obama’s 2009 job approval ratings were more polarized than for any previous President in his first year. Obama averaged 88% approval from Democrats and 23% from Republicans, a huge 65-point gap.

What happened in 2010? It got worse—a 68-point gap (Democrats 81%, Republicans 13%).

The level of political polarization has been increasing steadily in recent decades. Here’s Gallup: “Prior to Ronald Reagan, no President averaged more than a 40-point gap in approval ratings by party during his term; since then, only the elder George Bush has averaged less than a 50-point gap.” The average gap between Democrats and Republicans under Bill Clinton? 55 points. Under George W. Bush? 61 points. Under Barack Obama so far? 66.5 points.

In other words, tribalism isn’t just growing in Congress. It’s growing among voters. More and more, Republicans and Democrats don’t want to work together. They want to annihilate each other.

That’s a big problem for Presidents like Obama, who want to bring the country together. Or Bush, who said he wanted to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Or Clinton, who called himself a New Democrat and his program “the third way.” It’s getting harder and harder to build a centrist majority.

Both parties dream of not having to do that. Democrats governed more or less on their own in 2009 and 2010, when they had solid majorities in both houses of Congress. Republicans hope to limit Obama to one term next year and bring down the Democratic majority in the Senate. Then they can do in Washington what they’re already doing in twenty states, including Wisconsin and Ohio: govern with little interference from pesky Democrats.

There was a ray of hope in December, when congressional Democrats and Republicans worked together in the lame-duck session to extend the Bush tax cuts, ratify the New START treaty with Russia and end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That was an extraordinary circumstance, with deadlines looming. Neither party wanted to be responsible for allowing taxes to go up. One in three Republican senators voted not to start a new nuclear arms race. 70% of the public wanted to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” something unlikely to happen if it were left to the new Congress.

There was bipartisanship because there was urgency. That’s what we hope will happen when Congress has to pass a stopgap spending measure next week. And when it has to raise the debt limit in May. But if there is a government shutdown, or if Congress endangers the good faith and credit of the United States, it means we could be headed for all-out tribal war.