Most Americans are sick of hearing about “Polarization in Washington.” Voters are angry, and they demand change. However, neither party has been able to get much accomplished in the past ten years. Cable news channels have built an industry by exploiting the vast and growing gap between Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats as the defining feature of politics in Washington.
What has created this apparent hatred that causes elected officials to refuse cooperation with one another? Pundits, retired officials, and long-time journalists all decry the situation and opine different potential causes. Most agree that the complete failure to cooperate with each other is a relatively new phenomenon. Some blame it on specific events, like the impeachment of President Clinton, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Affordable Care Act, Racial tensions, lies or misleading statements by years of White House occupants.
Others blame ideologies, including more than the simple liberal versus conservative beliefs. There are also libertarian, progressive, evangelical and mainstream voters. Each of these has advocates in Congress.
Though any of the cited issues may have had some part in the destruction of our political system, few people realize that one single event was the major driver of government incompetence. Technically it wasn’t a single one-day event like an election. It was an ongoing process that went under the radar. Very few Americans knew it was happening or understood how it would affect us.
The event, occurring primarily in 2010, was Redistricting. At first view, it seems to be a boring, technical, and benign process, but it created the havoc we see in Washington.
What is redistricting and how does it work?
Redistricting is a process of changing district borders in each state, to compensate for demographic changes. Theoretically, every state examines the borders of each of its districts and may make some changes, every 10 years. Some districts may become larger, some may become smaller, some may maintain the same amount of geography but may change shape. Any of these changes may affect demographics in any district. New district outlines typically reflect changes in population size, area ethnic population, average income level, average age, and (most important) voting registration history.
The change of a district’s shape, therefore, may determine which parties and candidates are most likely to win. Either party may gain or lose, according to the newly included and excluded areas.
A key tactic in changing a district is called gerrymandering. It is a process of making changes, usually for political reasons, that are not logical extensions or reductions. To visualize the result of gerrymandering, consider a district map that was previously nearly round in shape, and changing it by adding a larger oblong area to the east and subtracting half of its previous boundaries from the west.
Though the redistricting process is supposed to be nonpartisan, it’s different in each state. It is almost impossible to detect specific reasons for many changes, but each party seems to have an overall strategy for affecting changes in each district.
In 2010 redistricting, the Republicans apparently wanted to become dominant in the state legislatures by bringing new winning candidates into many small districts.
Democrat strategy was apparently a combination of two things. One piece was to strengthen the voting majority for existing elected seats in the House. The other was to take advantage of immigration and re-shape districts in which they could grow their base by appealing to minority voters.
Both parties got their wishes. Democrats got firm control of the states with the largest voting populations, like California and New York. They made inroads in Texas and Florida, largely by creating immigrant blocs, though not enough to win electoral majorities.
The Republicans won the majority of the governorships, state legislatures, and congressional seats. To the dismay of their mainstream leaders, however, most of their additions on the congressional level were aligned with the so-called “Tea Party.” This group now dominates a separate group known as the House Freedom Caucus. Though this group publically defines itself as conservative Republicans, it operates much like a “fifth column,” covertly operating against programs supported by moderate Republicans.
How did those results affect Washington?
Democrat leaders in the House found themselves in conflict with the so-called “progressives,” composed of disaffected young voters, millennial female voters who don’t subscribe to the traditional Democrat talking points of women’s issues, and followers of Senator Bernie Sanders.
House Republican leaders found themselves between two groups that are virtually irreconcilable: far-right conservatives and moderate mainstream members. Every proposed bill is either too conservative or too expensive for one group or the other.
The overall result is that few bills can move through the House since a majority vote depends on support from progressives, mainstream Democrats, far right Freedom Caucus members, and mainstream Republicans.
In the Senate, these splits haven’t had as much of an effect as in the House, because senators are elected for six-year terms, while House members serve only two-year terms before a turnover can take place. If advocates of term limits succeed, however, the Senate will soon face conflicts with newly elected members.
The Ugliest Result of Redistricting
Finding themselves unable to pass meaningful legislation, both parties have fallen back to name-calling, negative hyperbole, anonymous leaks to the media, and other tactics to block success by either party. This is likely to go on, until the rise of a third party, or the virtual death of one of the existing two.
The press and pundit narrative of “parties that just don’t like each other” is false. Most honest lawmakers would like the situation to change. Some thought that election of a well-liked President might lead to compromise. But we haven’t had a universally liked President since the 1960s.