The Dirty Little Secret That Destroyed US Politics

PrintbookFinal8Most 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.

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How Do Low-Information Voters Affect All of Us?

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Low-information voters can be very funny. Diverse TV personalities like late night TV comedy host Jimmy Kimmel, and Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, regularly send street interviewers to public places, to demonstrate public ignorance on things every American should know. Night after night we see random people who can’t name the US vice president, say that the US fought France in WWII, or that the Civil War was fought in 1920.

Most of us respond by saying, “It’s just entertainment. And it’s funny!” But these mini-interviews tell us something else. Though the quick-answer responses are probably selected for their entertainment value, they actually demonstrate a major problem that is turning elections into meaningless comedies.

Most of these TV field crews acquire 12-15 interviewees, from which the producers choose 3-4 as entertainment. Perhaps that indicates that 75 percent of people interviewed respond with correct answers. Our nationwide elections are normally decided by 2-3 percent. If the street interviews indicate that 25 percent of voters are clueless, how can we select candidates based on voter support for complex issues?

Before the age of social media, most voters read newspapers or watched TV news a few times a week. They may not have been fully informed, but they knew something about issues that they considered important. A majority of the nation’s newspapers have either folded from lack of subscribers, or are struggling to serve a shrinking readership. The network news shows, once the greatest influences, have now faded to irrelevancy.

Candidates for national offices previously ran campaigns around issues they considered important, and tried to win support from swing-voters. But for the past 10-15 years, candidates and their staffs have emerged with something termed “identity politics.”

Low-information voters hear little about actual issues, and select candidates who successfully attack opponents with negative portrayals of factoids about their pasts.

A few examples:

  • Senator John Kerry lost his race against incumbent President George Bush in 2004, largely on questionable information about his actions as a Swift Boat pilot in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Though memories of those events 40 years earlier by witnesses were split on what actually occurred, the negative story won out. Kerry was further portrayed as an effete intellectual, based somewhat on videos showing him windsurfing on vacation.
  • Former Governor Mitt Romney lost his presidential race in 2012, after being portrayed as a cold, uncaring multimillionaire. The opposition campaign drove a story that he had gone on vacation with the family dog’s kennel strapped to the roof of his car. Opposition also claimed that Romney coldly eliminated American jobs, or “shipped them to China.” This claim ignored the fact that his company’s business was in purchasing unprofitable companies and re-selling them after eliminating obsolete or non-competitive operations.
  • Though President Barack Obama won his presidential bid in 2008, he had to survive tales of his church membership led by a demonstrably anti-American pastor. He was further attacked as being a Muslim, based on his biographical account of living in Indonesia for a few years of his childhood. Neither of these attacks told anyone—friend or foe—anything about his presidential agenda.

Unfortunately, none of these races included clear positions on issues that were important to voters. Instead, each campaign staff concentrated on low-information voters and fed them personal attacks against their opposing candidates.

Elections like these don’t serve Americans. We can do better. If only a small portion of the billions of dollars wasted on election advertising could address methods of non-partisan voter education, voters would act much more intelligently. Perhaps leaders in this area can become creative enough to appeal to millennials. Maybe they can deliver education in an online game format. Or perhaps as a modern cartoon series. Maybe they need to give away a T-shirt to everyone who participates.

Educated voters might then see themselves as hiring managers, and see candidates as applicants who must clearly state their positions, then perform as promised during the election process.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX

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