The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves…
Shakespeare penned those words; Nate Silver demonstrates their accuracy.
The increasing partisanship and polarization in Washington is making it more and more difficult to get anything meaningful done. The paralysis of government is real, and it is making all of us vulnerable–to economic recession, to climate change, to gun violence and all of the myriad challenges of contemporary social systems. Those in what Molly Ivins called the “chattering classes,” the punditocracy, bewail this state of affairs, and insist that the American public not only deserves better but deeply disapproves of this ideological rigidity.
Nate Silver begs to differ.
in a recent post for the New York Times, Silver demonstrates that the gridlock in Washington mirrors our own polarization. As recently as 1992, there were 103 swing Congressional districts; this year, there were 35. At the same time, the number of “landslide” districts doubled, from 123 to 242. As a result, most members of Congress now come from “hyperpartisan” districts where they face no general election threat. Any re-election challenge will come in a primary; in other words, Democrats must protect their left flanks, Republicans their right. As Silver notes, House members have little incentive to move toward the middle. Compromise with the other party simply makes them vulnerable to a primary challenge.
I have written about the pernicious effect of “safe” districts before, but I have generally assumed them to be the product of redistricting–gerrymandering. But Silver says the effect persists even if we ignore redistricting. He underscores what Bill Bishop reported in The Big Sort: people are voting with their feet, moving to areas they find congenial. The result is that Democrats are crammed into urban areas, and Republicans populate more rural districts. The result of that is the dilution of Democratic votes: in this year’s election, Democrats won the national popular vote by one point–an 8 point shift in their favor from 2010. But they gained only 8 House seats out of 435.
The results of these population patterns disadvantages Democrats by making continued control of the House by Republicans likely (absent a “wave” election), but it holds an even more serious threat to Republicans. As Silver points out, although individual Republican House members have little incentive to compromise, there are risks to the party if they fail to do so. Individual House members come from districts that reward them for being intractable, but that intransigence and hyper-partisanship make it increasingly difficult for the GOP to win either the Senate or the White House.
It seems appropriate, given how dysfunctional our government has become, to devolve from Shakespeare to Laurel and Hardy: this is certainly a fine kettle of fish we’ve gotten ourselves into!