Time to tear down ideological walls

Four macro-factors have emerged over the past 20 years to contribute to the partisan stalemate now gripping Washington: ideological sorting of parties, campaign finance reform laws, the new media, and redistricting and geographical sorting.

Today, the parties are ideologically sorted, resulting in the most liberal Republican now being more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. With the Blue Dog ranks eviscerated in 2010, moderates exert little influence in the Democratic caucuses of the House and the Senate. Moderate Republicans have become marginalized as culture electoral alignments have emerged and the GOP coalition has shifted to the South and West to a more rural, exurban base.

The twin punches of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and the Citizens United court decision have restricted what candidates and political parties can raise, and opened the floodgates for political money to flow away from the Republican and Democratic parties — a centering force in American politics — to interest groups, often on the extremes. Thus, in dozens of key races last November, more money was spent by interest groups than by the two parties and the candidates combined.

This has neutered party leaders and emboldened interest groups and ideological fringes, subverting compromise and contributing to polarization. Interest groups are politically empowered in party primaries, where turnouts are lower, putting their membership lists and organizations at a premium.

The 24/7 news cycle, growth of the Internet, cable news and talk radio have dramatically changed how people learn about politics. The Internet, for one, is a vast morass with few filters, editors and standards. Many Americans, for instance, believe the Internet traffic that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Many voters turn to Matt Drudge or The Huffington Post for their political fixes.

Much misinformation flourishes across cyberspace, and ideological groups, political candidates, advertisers and mischief-makers all utilize the Internet with abandon.

The mandates of the Voting Rights Act on packing minorities (read Democrats), along with the modern art form called gerrymandering, have reduced the number of partisanly competitive congressional districts. Last October, for example, as voters moved to the largest midterm swing in the House in 72 years, less than a quarter of the seats were genuinely in contention in the last weeks of campaigning. About 75 percent of the House races were already decided, the districts drawn to yield either Republican or Democratic incumbents, taking general election voters out of the political equations.

As a result, the vast majority of the members of Congress see their primaries — not the general election — as the major obstacle to their reelection. Primary voters have not rewarded compromise in recent elections. (Just ask Joe Lieberman, Bob Bennett, Mike Castle or Lisa Murkowski.) Voting for “grand bargains,” budget deals or the Troubled Asset Relief Program will likely get you a primary opponent.

Staying tough, not compromising, standing for principle and signing pledges are safer routes to reelection.

Residential sorting, coupled with value or cultural voting patterns, extend these principles to Senate races as well, though to a lesser extent. The Senate with its 60-vote requirement to move on most issues, adds to gridlock. And as the filibuster has now grown into a routine barrier, the cloture vote — not the substantive vote — is now scored by interest groups and trumpeted in the media.

Our electoral politics, with three straight nationalized elections, has become more like a parliamentary system, and congressional leaders have had a difficult time retro-fitting a balance-of-power federalist system. As much as the leaders may try to work collegially, the macro-pressure points of American politics have not rewarded them.

Divided government is not new, though. It has been the rule over much of the past 60 years. The past decade has produced stagnant wages, two failed wars, an economic meltdown, 9 percent unemployment, massive debt and Hurricane Katrina, which has become code for government’s poor response to disaster.

Volatile electorates do volatile things.

While political leaders fear compromise and cater to their bases, they need to understand that failure to produce results threatens the whole system. Angry mobs brought down the government in Egypt. Angry voters tossed Republicans out of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008 — and Democrats out of the House in 2010.

Unless Republicans and Democrats find some solutions to current problems, they will face a bipartisan spanking in 2012. Failure to deal with the nation’s problems will have unintended adverse consequences for both parties.

As the newly established congressional supercommittee begins its fiscal deliberations, pressure from an angry middle must be weighed against the powers of the ideological right and left.

The good news is the failure to find agreement is politically less palatable than the consequences of actually finding an agreement. Because of the inclusion of triggers for across-the-board cuts in the supercommittee deal, partisans on both sides of the aisle have plenty of motivation to act.

The dozen members of the supercommittee were selected by their respective party leaders, so I don’t expect any potential agreement to pass by a one-vote margin. Instead, I expect that any agreement will require — and receive — buy-in from both sides, which should make the job of selling it politically easier.

To be sure, the efforts of the supercommittee to forge a bipartisan agreement will be an important test of the ability of both parties to make Washington work in this increasingly politically divided environment.

Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, served seven terms in the House, from 1995 to 2008. He’s now director of federal government affairs for Deloitte & Touche and president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.

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