Column: Our polarized democracy
WASHINGTON — “Congressional Democrats were ecstatic,” The New York Times reported the morning after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected trouncing in his Republican primary. “An informal dinner party at the Georgetown apartment of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, turned into a celebration.”
On one level, this reaction is entirely understandable. Cantor’s political shape-shifting and overweening ambition earned him few friends in either party. His cynical willingness to torpedo deals worked out between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner made him particularly noxious to Democrats.
And, politics being politics, knocking off the other side’s majority leader is, inevitably, going to be a feel-good moment — especially when the other side was only too happy to gloat about booting you out of the majority.
Yet on another level, the episode offers a disturbing commentary about the poisonous, polarized state of American politics. Democrats seized on Cantor’s loss as an opportunity to paint Republicans as increasingly loony and intransigent: “A major victory for the tea party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right,” Pelosi said in an election-night statement.
New York Democrat Steve Israel, head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, predicted Republicans running “further to the far right, with the tea party striking fear into the heart of every Republican on the ballot and cementing the dysfunction that has paralyzed this Congress and prevented them from taking any action to help middle-class families.”
Well, yippee! Let’s all celebrate cementing dysfunction.
The theory here is that voters will be increasingly fed up and that Democrats may wrest some advantage from this development in swing districts. The dreary reality is that such seats are few and far between. The real-life consequence of Cantor’s loss will be to further diminish the already slim prospects for serious legislating, not only dooming immigration reform, at least in the short term, but raising the prospect of dangerous showdowns on the budget and debt ceiling.
Whatever the precise ingredients of Cantor’s demise — alleged squishiness on immigration, being out of touch with his district, coziness with Wall Street — Republican lawmakers cannot help but look at his fate and worry about the threat from the right wing of their party. That cannot be healthy for a well-functioning democracy.
As it happens, Cantor’s loss came just before the Pew Research Center released a depressing new report on that very topic: the increasingly polarized state of American politics. The findings are hair-pulling.
More Americans have moved to the ideological edges. “The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent,” Pew reports.
These true believers not only disagree with the other side, they view them with “growing contempt,” a trait particularly pronounced among conservatives. Pew, again: “Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’” Not surprisingly, they associate primarily with their own kind, inhabiting “ideological silos” consisting of friends who share their political views.
To read the report is to be struck by the pragmatic attitude of the majority of Americans and by their simultaneous abdication of responsibility to the extremes — and, with it, power. This sensible center is willing to compromise; half said they’d be willing to split the difference 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats.
But the centrist majority isn’t inclined to translate this attitude into action. “On measure after measure — whether primary voting ... volunteering for or donating to a campaign — the most politically polarized are more actively involved in politics, amplifying the voices that are the least willing to see the parties meet each other halfway,” Pew reported.
How to change this dynamic is the central puzzle of American democracy. Nonpartisan redistricting is a great idea. But the on-the-ground reality, with voters locating themselves among like-minded neighbors, limits its effectiveness.
California’s adoption of a “jungle primary,” in which the top two vote-getters battle it out in November, regardless of party, offers another theoretical avenue for empowering relative moderates; imagine a Cantor versus David Brat general election. Yet the results from two election cycles are inconclusive.
All of which leaves me in an entirely unexpected position: not celebrating Cantor’s loss, but lamenting it.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is email@example.com.