The New (Old) Normal
“Washington is broken” is a common lament about the state of politics in American. The caustic language, the lack of compromise and the increasing misuse of the near defunct filibuster are all evidence of Washington’s dysfunction. Citizens, pundits and some politicians long for the good old days when the parties worked together. They think that is “normal” for American politics. It is not.
Political Scientists Poole and Rosenthal have demonstrated that a sharp divide between the parties is the norm not similarity. They examined the belief systems or ideology of every past and present member of Congress. Their results show that that the period of cooperation and similarity that Republicans and Democrats experienced from the end of World War I through the 1970s was unique.
A number of factors including the Civil War and the liberal Progressive movement left each party with a liberal and conservative wing. This meant you could find allies in the other party as well as your own. This resulted in major Democratic legislation such as Social Security and Medicaid getting 40-60% Republican support. It resulted in more Republicans voting for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act than Democrats.
This changed as the 1960s Civil Rights movement (among other influences) swung southern conservatives to the Republicans. Over time, the two parties coalesced into the conservative GOP and liberal Democrat parties that we see today.
Much of our history is a story of a sharply divided Congress. However, this new era of division is different from past divided Congresses. The last time we were this divided, Senators had greater regional and state party loyalty before the 17th Amendment let voters elect the Senate. Party bosses whose chief concerns were power and graft not ideology influenced state and local parties. Strong leadership, particularity an era of strong House Speakers also kept the legislative process working. We currently lack the mechanisms to make the parties cooperate.
On one hand, this does mean that voters have a clear choice. It also means when we have divided government and a power split between the parties that gridlock is the most likely outcome. With the death of the filibuster, it increases the likelihood that a party in power will push more extreme agendas.
I see little reason to believe that this division trend will change in the near future. We can long for a lost unity that many of us experienced as we grew up. That “normal” is gone- welcome to the new but old normal!
Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.