Some Louisiana former members of Congress got together recently to whine about Congress. Analyzing past their carping, one can discern the real reasons triggering their views of increased divisiveness in the chambers and its larger meaning.
Rodney Alexander, John Breaux, and Billy Tauzin recently addressed the Council for a Better Louisiana on their perceptions of today’s Congress. All served in the House of Representatives and Breaux additionally in the Senate, which he departed in 2005. Tauzin also left then, and Alexander took off in 2013.
Thus, only Alexander’s experience is reasonably recent, although all have maintained somewhat close connections to the institutions, because they work as lobbyists. That fact clues us in to understanding the insularity of their observations. Nothing like hanging around the same clique, even if it refreshes it membership, for 35 years like Breaux to isolate yourself exceptionally from the rest of the country and the typical citizen.
Note also they represent a particular ideological faction – centrists. According to the American Conservative Union’s scorecard, for their careers Democrat Breaux was slightly to the left and Republicans Tauzin and Alexander moderately to the right. Compared to last year’s lifetime scores, the least conservative Republican in the state’s delegation then would be a bit more so than the two past GOP House members, while in the entire Senate only one senator in 2016 had a rating, like Breaux, within five points of the halfway mark between ideological extremes.
Their narrow perspective doesn’t invalidate their seeing much contention and division in today’s Washington. But it does lead them to incorrect conclusions about its source and impact.
They rightly blame redistricting, and indirectly the technology that can so parse geographies that three districts can intersect at one business
, but don’t seem to understand that districts increasingly comprised of a party’s majority haven’t come about because of manipulation, but because the country as a whole increasingly has become ideologically polarized. Two causes of many can be observed empirically.
First, attitudes nationally simply have gone in the direction
. A number of things can contribute to this, such as greater educational attainment that induces greater ideological thinking in the mass public and exponentially more numerous and voluminous information sources upon which the mass public may draw. Ideological considerations thus become more important in voting behavior, especially as the national parties – Republican moderately, Democrats severely – have moved more to ideological extremes to make choices clearer for voters.
Second, in geographic terms, it appears more partisan self-sorting has occurred
from the late 1990s. Simply, in discrete geographical areas, Republicans increasingly tend to live near other Republicans, and the same relationship occurs for Democrats.
This makes districting to emphasize ideological purity easier than ever. If you have a mass public nationally more willing to think in ideological terms and its members more likely concentrate by ideological leanings, it becomes easier to draw purer districts for House members on the basis of ideological behavior that do not violate legal standards such as diluting racial representativeness.
Further reinforcing both tendencies is, within the mass public, increasingly positive views of co-partisans and antipathy towards people identifying with the other major party. That makes the party/ideology connection easier to establish and encourages self-sorting residentially. All together, this helps to explain why polarization occurs in the voting patterns of senators, where districting doesn’t apply.
Observe also that “polarization” often, in how its users employ it, acts as a cudgel rather than scalpel to understand voting behavior. Over the past few decades, identification with a party barely has increased as has willingness to call oneself liberal or conservative, and on the majority of political issues, on the whole, mass views are pretty centrist. But, indisputably, voters have become more ideologically consistent across their views and see the parties and candidate choices more in ideological terms.
And, they see politics more than ever in personal terms – which, to an astonishing degree, mirrors the three lobbyists/retired politicians’ feelings that Congress, insofar as interpersonal relationships go, has become a much coarser place. It’s not redistricting and “dirty campaigns” that have produced this, as they assert; it’s a public whose members are more desirous and able to think ideologically and have the means to self-segregate into spheres of reduced interaction with those not willing to think like them. They send people of the same persuasion to Congress
Regardless of sourcing, the trio did not like this trend. Yet, in the final analysis, is it a bad thing? After all, policy made in European democracy for decades has taken on greater ideological tones with often starkly polarized representative institutions. That their changes in government can produce wild policy swings and intense conflict between parties occurs becomes muted in the eyes of those so upset with polarization’s impact in American politics because their systems lean moderately to heavily on the parliamentary kind that fuses power, as opposed to America’s presidential system that fragments it. That conflict’s policy implications go unnoticed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Still, conflict from polarization can become needlessly destructive if politics becomes too personalized. This particularly would pick at the souls of these three Louisianans, where the political culture for decades stressed personalistic relationships rather than ideology. That approach created a number of problems, but it did hyper-insulate from coarseness exacerbating conflict. Ideological politics rather than personalistic politics on the whole serves the public much better. Taking it too far would not.