In the standoff over the debt crisis, it’s easy to point the finger at the Tea Party. Even conservative commentators have argued that its uncompromising ideology is at the heart of the problem. But there have often been strong ideological movements in American politics, represented by politicians such as William Jennings Bryan, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Yet between elections, people still found ways to compromise and govern. What has steadily changed over the past three or four decades is not so much the ideological intensity (though it has grown) but the structure of politics, making it more beholden to narrow, specialized interests — including ideological ones — rather than broader national ones.
There was no golden age in Washington when people were more high-
minded than they are today. But 40 years ago, the rules and organizing framework of politics made it easier for the two parties to work together. Since then, a series of changes has led to the narrowcasting of American politics. Redistricting has created safe seats so that, for most House members, their only concern is a challenge from the right (for Republicans) and the left (for Democrats).
Party primaries have been taken over by small groups of activists who push even popular senators to extreme positions. In Utah, 3,500 conservative activists managed to take the well-regarded Sen. Robert Bennett (R) off the ballot. GOP senators such as Orrin Hatch and John McCain have moved farther to the right, hoping to stave off similar assaults.
Changes in congressional rules have also made it far more difficult to enact large, compromise legislation. In the wake of Watergate, “sunshine rules” were put in place that required open committee meetings and recorded votes. The purpose was to make Congress more open and responsive, and so it has become — to lobbyists, money and special interests.
The political scientist James Thurber recalled watching lobbyists with their cellphones at a congressional hearing on the 1986 tax reforms. “They started dialing the instant anyone in the room even thought about changing a tax break. Their calls . . . brought a deluge of protest borne by phone, letter, and fax. There is no buffer allowing a Representative to think about what’s going on. In the old days you had a few months or weeks, at least a few days. Now you may have a few seconds before the wave hits.” To pass that landmark legislation, eliminating hundreds of tax deductions and loopholes, Dan Rostenkowski, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, had to insist on a return to closed hearings during the bill’s markup.
Polarization has been fueled by a new media, which have also been narrowcast. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he suggested that he might further the conservative agenda through an occasional compromise. That provoked a tirade from Rush Limbaugh, which then produced a torrent of angry e-mails and phone calls to Issa’s office. Issa quickly and publicly apologized to Limbaugh and promised only opposition to President Obama. Multiply that example a thousandfold, and you have the daily dynamic of Congress.
It’s depressing — but the fact that our politics are the result of structural shifts means that they can be changed. Mickey Edwards, a Republican and a former House member from Oklahoma, has a highly intelligent essay in Atlantic magazine, suggesting a series of reforms that could make a difference. Some of them are large-scale, such as creating truly open primaries and handing over the power of redistricting to independent commissions. Others are seemingly small but crucial changes in congressional procedure and practice, for example, filling committee vacancies by lot and staffing committees with professionals rather than with political apparatchiks.
Some political scientists long hoped that American parties would become more ideologically pure and coherent, like European parties. They have gotten their wish, and the result is abysmal — and predictable. America does not have a parliamentary system in which one party takes control of all levers of power — executive and legislative — enacts its agenda and then goes back to the voters. Power in the United States is shared by a set of institutions with overlapping authorities. The parties have to cooperate for anything to get done. That’s why the Founding Fathers despised political parties — Tea Party please note — and barely tolerated even the looser notion of “factions.”
Edwards’s proposed reforms are smart. There are others to consider as well. What’s most important is to recognize that we can change the incentives that produce demonstrably bad government in Washington. We are not condemned to have a political system whose chief characteristics are venom, dysfunction and paralysis.