I'm old enough to know that the good old days weren't always that great, but I think the evidence is compelling that we are today seeing a serious deterioration in political civility, and along with it a dramatic escalation in overt partisanship.
There are countless reasons for this breakdown, but one underlying cause is the constitutionally mandated redistricting process as it is conducted in most states these days. In far too many states the two parties have engaged in an unholy alliance to protect their incumbents and avoid the rigors of political contests. In others, the dominance of one political party has been so overwhelming that it has written the rules to ensure that its domination continues, packing all adherents of the opposition party into the fewest possible districts, no matter how egregious the gerrymandering required.
Consistently now in general elections, well over 90 percent of congressional races are vir- tually uncontested. The absence of any contest has contributed to the increasing absence of voters: Why bother? The impact on civility and civil discourse, on constructive debate and comity, is even more pernicious. The pattern of redistricting as it has evolved leads to such results.
As legislators huddle in their quiet decennial conversations to craft new voting districts, it's not unnatural for them to want to assign their opponents to someone else's district. As this is applied in the real world, of course, sooner or later the incumbents who are making these judgments realize how nice it would be to make a trade. "I'll give him all the people in my area who vote his way, and he can give me all those who vote my way. Then we can both run in solid districts reflecting the values of our own party."
Sounds logical, but the result is less dialogue, less comity and more partisanship. Anyone who doubts this has not been paying attention to the "debates" in Congress over the past decade or so.
Let's assume that 60 or 70 percent of the voters in any district are adherents of one political party. Candidates in that district have to be concerned with winning only the primary; the general election is a foregone conclusion. Winning the primary requires that they talk only to the local party activists -- usually the party "purists." In more than 90 percent of congressional districts, success in the dominant party's primary is tantamount to election.
If a candidate need talk only to those who are most fervent in support of the party, he or she doesn't have to listen to, or even speak to, people in the center, much less those of the other party. As a matter of fact, candidates seen cozying up to people on the other side of the political aisle might put their own primary prospects at risk.
We're increasingly moving to a political system that looks, and feels, like a political barbell: one where all the weight is at the ends of the spectrum, leaving those in the center with little voice or opportunity for impact. It's dangerous, it's counterproductive and I think it represents an assault upon the constitutional premise of balance which has so graced the first two centuries of this republic.
There is an alternative. One state has chosen a better route: In Iowa, the districting is done by an independent commission, and, as I understand it, the rules are fairly straightforward. They seek to draw districts that are compact and contiguous -- both happily appropriate constitutional terms -- and, to the extent possible, ones that adhere to county lines. All this without regard to party. The result: Most contests in Iowa really are contests. Many would argue that the Iowa delegation has been consistently one whose members seek solutions that often require the participation of partisans from both side of the political aisle. Not a bad result.
Members of Congress are overwhelmingly competent, caring, honorable and decent public servants. One has only to look at their schedules to know they are extremely hardworking. Yet they are working within a system that too often makes it risky, if not downright dangerous, to reach across party lines to try to solve national problems.
That can lead only to stalemate, and I believe it has come perilously close to that destination.
The writer served as a representative and senator from Tennessee. He was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1977 to 1981.