In the hypercharged political climate of today, we hear a lot of speculation about the causes of such extreme partisanship that political parties no longer seem capable of compromise. In the “good old days,” we are told, things weren’t like this; politicians could set aside petty rivalries and talking points and move forward for the good of the country. If this is indeed the case, what development in American politics is to blame for the end of compromise? It isn’t necessarily that the American people have become more extreme. In fact, polls show that on a plurality of issues – tax policy, Social Security, etc – we agree far more often than not. While a lot of attention is focused on the large amount of money in campaigns, the power of lobbyists, or the 24 hour news cycle, I believe the answer to be even more basic. The gerrymandering of Congressional districts protects incumbents, which now allows them to pick their constituents instead of the other way around, and has given rise to extreme candidates on each side, leading to the disappearance of moderates and moderation. For many members of Congress, the only electoral challenge they have to fear is a primary challenge. As long as they can make it to the general election as the anointed representative of their party, the odds of that candidate losing are minuscule.
I find this problem to be extremely interesting because it’s complicated and often missing from the conventional explanations of the breakdown in civility in American politics. And in some ways, it’s inspiring to believe that rather than our culture or the process of elections themselves, the current climate of hyperpartisanship is the result of a broken system; broken systems can be fixed.
Part of what got me thinking about this issue was my internship in the summer of 2010. I worked on a Congressional campaign in New York’s 29th district, and saw a hard-working, honest war veteran lose in a landslide to a Republican who barely even had to campaign. One contributing factor to his loss was that the election was meant to replace disgraced Representative Eric Massa, but another reason was that my district has been set up as a sort of dumping ground to take Republican voters out of the district belonging to Louise Slaughter. With a new round of redistricting on the way, this will probably become even more pronounced. I’d love to study this problem and try to find a way to improve the system so that Congress can work for moderates again in the future.