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Why politics is so partisan

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POSTED: December 29, 2007 5:02 a.m.
On the whole, Americans want their politicians to hew to the political center and govern with a healthy dose of pragmatism. Yet we live in the most bitterly partisan era in memory, when the dominant voices in both parties are more ideological and less willing to compromise, and the politics they practice too often is a mean-spirited, take-no-prisoners enterprise.
How could this gap between Americans’ moderate inclinations and their leaders’ tendentious zeal have grown so large?
A large part of the answer lies in long-term social changes that have weakened the political center. We may be moderate in the aggregate, but those who involve themselves in political life often give strength to the extremes.
Take the shift over the past generation in how we view the government.
When I entered national politics in the 1960s, the prevailing attitude toward the federal government was that it had its place in life, but that place was fairly limited. “Keep the government off my back” was the sentiment I heard most frequently.
These days, people want help: a subsidy here, a tax break there, a program or a grant targeted to their needs. They come streaming into Washington to state their case.
That is a huge attitudinal shift, and it has intensified our politics and raised the stakes in Congress. A change in wording, even a comma inserted or deleted, can mean millions or billions of dollars to one group over another. Small wonder that lobbying has become a huge and lucrative industry inside the Beltway: With so much at stake, fighting as hard as one can on Capitol Hill and in the electoral arena is a matter of simple self-interest.
Outside Washington, the constituencies that make up “we, the people” have become ever more sharply etched. Ethnic minorities are far more of a presence in politics than they were a generation ago, as they scramble to move up the economic ladder and speak with a louder voice in the political arena.
Special-interest voters - environmentalists, NRA backers, abortion-rights advocates, religious conservatives - have become more firmly self-identified, rousable by cause groups, and catered to by politicians.
And as economic inequality grows, it raises the political temperature. Those who are doing well fight harder to keep what they have or tilt the game a bit more in their favor, while those treading water or living in fear of losing what they’ve got must scramble desperately for whatever political purchase they can find. All of this raises the nation’s political intensity.
Confronted by all this, politicians and party leaders have moved away from the old values of compromise, accommodation and civility, to reap whatever advantage they can from political division. This starts at the very top. Most past presidents believed in using their office to expand their political base; President Bush, on the other hand, has governed so as to appeal to his base, and for the last seven years that approach has been echoed on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
Legislative tactics these days lean far more toward excluding the minority than toward seeking ways to work with all members. This makes Congress an increasingly angry place, as the current minority chafes under its restrictions and the majority still sees red over slights it suffered when it was in the minority.
Along with the frenetic pace of life in Congress, this has made it much harder for members to develop personal relationships across the aisle; they see one another less as colleagues than as partisan adversaries.
They worry less about how Congress might carry out its constitutional responsibilities and more about how to pick up a few votes. All of this is magnified by a national media that thrives on highlighting the battles between politicians.
The key question, of course, is whether this is bound to continue. Are we condemned to live in a country whose center cannot hold?
The answer, I think, is two-fold. Our politicians like to talk bi-partisanship, but they are the ones ultimately responsible for the polarization of the process. They’ve profited from the partisan system: in campaign contributions, the assiduous attention of lobbyists, and the increased power of their partisan bases as Americans in the center get turned off and abandon political involvement altogether. Nothing will change until our politicians change.
And how will this happen? I take great hope from the fact that the bulk of the electorate simply wants to see the challenges that confront them - and us, as a nation - addressed pragmatically. They want common-sense approaches, not ideologically driven ones. They want to see politicians striving to find common ground, not dwelling on their differences, and working for the common good, not promoting special interests.
Eventually, if it’s repeated often and firmly enough, that message will get through to our political leaders.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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