COLUMN: Despite voter disapproval, politics is getting more combative

Thursday, March 11, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

The President Barack Obama-Congress health care summit and its partisan aftermath maintains citizens’ dislike for politics and renews cries for more bipartisanship. While politics has apparently always sounded mean, there is evidence that partisanship in Congress has increased.

Congressional Quarterly calculates that in 2009, both House and Senate Democrats voted with their party 91 percent of the time on votes where the two parties were at odds. This is at or near, record levels of unity for both chambers. House and Senate Republicans were nearly as unified. Times have changed since 1968, when only 51 percent of Senate Democrats backed their party on so-called party unity votes, or in 1970, when only 56 percent of Senate Republicans voted with their party position.

Hyper and omnipresent partisanship is now institutionalized in legislatures and ingrained in present day politicians. Partisanship makes for good TV and attracts schoolyard bullies, but it turns normal people off to politics — and that is something we do not need. In "Stealth Democracy," University of Nebraska political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse show that citizens deeply dislike politics as usual. The more bickering and petty posturing they see, the more they dislike it. Most citizens don’t like arguing and don’t like watching people who do.

There are many reasons politics is less civil, more combative and less bipartisan   then it was just a generation ago. Here are my top 10 reasons:

  1. Redistricting has eliminated moderates. While gerrymandering has been around for two centuries, easy to use computer technology with better marketing information has perfected this political art. Its like the difference between 3-by-5 cards and high density DVDs. The result is that successful candidates are more extreme than the typical voter. Even with court-directed redistricting, this is a tough hole to fill. The most effective reforms are alternative voting methods such as “instant runoff voting” or “approval voting” but they don’t appear to be politically feasible. Electing legislators at-large with proportional representation is discussed by academicians but not likely.
  2. The perpetual campaign keeps the pot bubbling. Once upon a time, the fall campaign was over by the next spring so lawmakers could get to work. Elections are a zero-sum game, but policy-making was viewed as a “win-win.” Full-year campaigning prevents a cooling off period when politicians can talk about real policy issues like health care reform, the foundation formula or prison costs for non-violent offenders.
  3. Baby boomers kinda like trouble. Most of us born after World War II admire “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “The Greatest Generation,” but we really enjoyed “Animal House” and daring the science teacher to send us to the principal’s office.  Our parents tried to teach us to play nicely with others, but we each had our own ball and sometimes took it and went home.  
  4. TV was made for arguing, and TV is the medium that shapes politicians’ dress, decisions and thoughts. Can you imagine CNN saying “we want to break away for this traffic pileup to show you Senator Left and Senator Right conferring about Table 37 of the new Congressional Budget Office report"?  The “Meet the Press” of today is not the “Meet the Press” of the 1960s. Railing against government to like-minded activists makes for better TV coverage than explaining how the new highway bridge is safer than the old one and that it was funded by county, state and national officials all working together.
  5. Issues are more complex. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is rather clear; the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993 is still hard to figure out. Financial regulation proved too complicated for Alan Greenspan, who focused on it full-time. When humans get overloaded we oversimplify and speak in slogans.
  6. The rise of special interests and the decline of more general political parties. Probably dating back to the 1970s, agriculture, environmental, crime and drunk driving issues activated citizens with narrower policy interests. Combined with hired professional marketers and lobbyists, the result is plenty of people can block policy action but no one can move it. Stronger political parties are proposed by many academicians but about 40 percent of the electorate no long identify with a particular party.
  7. Individual-centered campaigns. Political parties no longer propose a platform and adopt it as the “responsible parties” view of government requires because individual candidates and elected officials have their own contributors and supporters. The pendulum has swung from party bosses to special interest dominance.
  8. Campaign consultants and campaign schools. Once upon a time, candidates invited their neighbors over and they each addressed some postcards a few weeks before the election. Now, candidates buy a mailing list and professional brochures that have been theme-tested in other races. Candidates go to school to learn to appeal to their base and to be noncommittal. Hey, it works for McDonald's and Hardee's.
  9. Term limits and short-term thinking. At its best, the two year election cycle shortens lawmakers' planning cycle compared to that of corporations and most non-profit organizations. Legislative term limits have further shortened legislative thinking. Elected officials need to deliver — or at least sound like they are delivering — a pet project today.
  10. Instant communication means having reactions ready before the summit.  A standard news story, especially for TV, is the instant reaction of the opposing party after the State of the State or State of the Union speeches or after a high level powwow. These sound bites need to be prepared by staffers before the meeting actually takes place.  

Of the 10 factors above, is it possible that reforming the redistricting process and improving voting methods are the change most likely to occur? Human nature, the conflict-seeking media and the complexity of issues are not going to change. There has to be an improvement here someplace.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.

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