Is Political Polarization Leading to a Failure of Governance in America?

Posted on March 7, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Americans are by and large moderates, a fact obscured by the political debate conducted in the halls of Congress and on talk radio where the attention goes to he who shouts the loudest and the longest.

But according to National Journal’s annual vote ratings, the divide between conservative and liberal voting in Congress has rarely been sharper. The National Journal tally reveals that just 10 House members had voting records that overlapped with the opposing party last year and eight of them lost their seats in November. The Senate, meanwhile, lacked even one true moderate.

This is counter-intuitive when we remember that a plurality of Americans considers itself moderate. In exit polls during recent presidential elections, on average, 47 percent of voters self-identify as moderate, 33 percent conservative and 20 percent liberal.

And every poll in recent memory has shown voters want the two parties to work together to solve our shared problems and to dispense with the politics of odium and mistrust.

Politicians pay lip service to these desires at election time, but when they return to Washington it is clear they really don’t get it. In the landscape of political discourse all Democrats are liberal taxers and spenders and all Republicans want to do is slash government programs, cut taxes for business and evict illegal immigrants.

Obviously, those stereotypes are false. We believe centrist politics are good politics and that the disaffected middle could prove a rich vein of electoral goodness for politicians who tap into it. We are not alone in this belief.

In a report called “The Still-Vital Center: Moderates, Democrats, and the Renewal of American Politics,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William A. Galston, and Elaine C. Kamarck, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, argue that political polarization has led to a failure of governance in America.

They say Democrats are best positioned to broaden their ranks by embracing moderates: “We argue that this crisis of governance and the difficulty Democrats have had in sustaining a governing majority have the same root—namely, the failure to give appropriate weight to political moderates in our electoral and policy processes. But these problems also have the same cure—adopting the kinds of structural changes that will amplify moderates’ voices,” the scholars write.

Still, every once in a while a glimmer of moderation bubbles to the top, like an effort being spear-headed by Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is probably the closest thing the upper chamber has to a moderate, to do something about the federal budget deficit. Warner has assembled a gang of six—three Democrats, three Republicans—who are working on legislations that would force the federal government to meet deficit reduction goals.

And while the benefit of appealing to the center appears lost on members of Congress, President Obama improved his political position when he moved to the center on a deal to maintain the Bush tax cuts. This is reminiscent of the shift to the center that helped fuel President Clinton’s reelection in 1996.

So is the middle history? We’d like to think not. We’d like to think the majority of Americans who are political moderates will not go unrepresented in Washington while extremists on the left and the right dominate the political landscape.



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