When he was first running for president in 2008, Barack Obama frequently suggested that he would dismantle the partisanship that had jammed the gears of official Washington. His mantra of "change" was deliberately vague, but with his election it certainly seemed as though the country that handed him a broad mandate might see change in the form of Democrats and Republicans moving back toward compromise.
Nope. Nope for a lot of reasons, many of which are outside of Obama's ability to address. But: Nope.
During his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, Obama referred to his inability to roll back the partisan divide as "one of the few regrets" of his presidency. "There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide," he said, "and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."
It's not totally clear that he's right on that Lincoln / Roosevelt piece, as our Max Ehrenfreund noted earlier this week. There's an index compiled by academics at VoteView.com which measures the partisanship of each member of the House and Senate in each Congress. (How this is done is complicated, but the measure is a commonly cited one.)
That allows us to plot each member of Congress since the beginning of the nation, color-coding by party (red for Republican, blue for Democrat, yellow for independent or other). Here's the House. Dots above the middle line are more conservative and those beneath it more liberal. (The main consideration being measured here is the role of the government in the economy, by the way.)
Here's the Senate. We've highlighted the Republican senators running for the presidency in the recent Congresses.
You can probably see the trend in recent years: The two parties are moving apart -- mostly as the Republicans grow more conservative. We can average out the parties' scores over time and show the patterns of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate since the dawn of the modern Republican party.
The parties were far apart in the aftermath of the Civil War, grew closer together around the time of World War II, and, starting in the 1980s, split more than at any point in history.
Let's focus on the last 40 years.
About that "growing closer together around World War II"? That was likely in part a function of Southern Democrats growing more conservative, the beginning of a shift that's only now reaching its completion.
Anyway. Here's what Obama said during his speech about the recent split.
"There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber who would like to see more cooperation, a more elevated debate in Washington," he said, "but feel trapped by the demands of getting elected. I know; you’ve told me."
He continued. "We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections — and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution."
This is the argument: Gerrymandering has created districts in which the only contest is in the primary. That means two politicians vying to be the most conservative or liberal, with the winner stomping all over the general election opponent. As we noted last May, Republicans are much more likely to identify as conservative than Democrats are to identify as liberal -- meaning that Republicans in a gerrymandered seat might be more likely to move to the right.
Our Chris Ingraham developed a way of measuring how gerrymandered a district is, comparing its area to that of a circle with the same perimeter. He assigns districts a number on a scale from 0 to 100, with a 0 being a perfectly compact district and a 100 being a very messy one. Since the 1950s, here's how the average score in eight large states has changed.
It's a steady increase that doesn't precisely match the partisanship score -- but there's a correlation.
There's also a correlation on the money. The Campaign Finance Institute tracks campaign spending, which has increased dramatically over the last 40 years. Note that this is adjusted into 2014 dollars.
There's another correlation, too. As Congress has grown more partisan, the number of people who identify as independents has also increased.
Certainly some of those people left their political party after having grown disenchanted with its movement to the extreme, though we don't know how many. (Most still vote with their parties anyway.)
What's important to note is that there's no clear link between these things and the state of Congress. Money plays a role, as members of Congress need to fundraise for partisan primaries from wealthy patrons. Gerrymandering does, too, as Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) argues. More people leaving the parties to become independents may also mean that the people left in the parties are more extreme. There are a lot of possible ingredients but no recipe.
Perhaps the most important thing to note in the context of Obama's speech is that he went to Washington with the goal of reversing the trend in partisanship we've seen in recent years. He didn't reverse it. He didn't dent it. It's bigger than the presidency, as he said -- and it's pretty unlikely that FDR would have been able to do much about it either.