by Ryan Wolfe
Our first Wake the Vote event in South Carolina last week was the most important one of the weekend. The event didn’t involve any canvassing, phone calls, or candidate rallies. It was a forum on bipartisanship featuring the Chairman of South Carolina Democratic Party Jaime Harrison and Chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party Matt Moore. However, the hour we spent talking with Chairman Harrison & Chairman Moore was about much more than bipartisanship: it was about whether our nation’s political system would ever be able to break out of its current gridlock and function in the future. But before I talk about the solutions we discussed at the forum, I want you to understand just how big of a problem we are facing as a country.
The “Do-Nothing Congress”
The United States has huge problems to confront both domestically and internationally. Yet, our largest problem is that our government does not act to solve them.The impact of an inactive, ineffective Congress cannot be overstated. According to data from Congress, the 112th Congress (2011-2012) only passed only 220 public laws compared to the 84th Congress (1955-1956) which passed 1,o28 public laws. There is a greater chance of surviving a gunshot wound to the head (5%) than getting a bill passed by the 113th Congress and signed into law (2%). As one can see in the graph below, the productivity of our legislature has plummeted. If Harry Truman thought a Congress that passed 900 bills was a “do-nothing” congress, he would be appalled by the situation we have today.
This gridlock has thrown bills that would reform our immigration system, fund infrastructure development, and relieve the military of sequester cuts to the wayside. Legislators can barely accomplish straightforward tasks like funding the government (see 2013, 2014, 2015). The graph above also shows that Congress didn’t always used to work this way. Legislators used to pass more laws and solve more problems, even while the government was divided between Democrats and Republicans. One may think that the gridlock and partisan fighting that goes on in Congress is the fault of the Senators or Representatives we elect. While the members of Congress may share some of the blame, a polarized electorate is the real cause of our polarized legislature.
The Polarized Electorate
In the past several decades, our political parties have undergone radical changes in ideology that have created the Congress we see today. In the past, there was an ideological overlap: Some Democrats were more conservative than some Republicans while some Republicans were more liberal than some Democrats. Parties were carefully built coalitions that depended less on ideology and more on winning elections. Republicans had more liberal members in the Northeast, the Rockefeller Republicans, while Democrats had conservative members in the South, the Blue Dogs. While ideological diversity allowed for both parties to be competitive on the national stage, it also made party loyalty less important in Congress. The Blue Dogs would often vote with Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans sometimes sided with the Democrats. Reaching compromises was much easier, so passing legislation was more common. But as you can see in the graph below, parties have voted together in increasing frequency during the past several decades. The cause of this unity is from increased ideological unity within the party.
Time for a quick history lesson. Beginning with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Republicans began a plan known as the southern strategy to sway votes from conservative Democrats to the Republican Party. Democrats had held the “Solid South” for decades leading to a large electoral advantage for their party. Since 1964, Republicans have executed their strategy to perfection by taking on the views of conservatives, giving them electoral success in the South. By becoming more conservative, Republicans were able to win massive victories for Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George H.W. Bush in 1988. So in the short term, the southern strategy lead to an era of Republican hegemony as the Democrats lost much of their conservative base in the South while Republicans retained their coalition of business leaders and anti-communists in the Northeast. However, a major shift began as moderate and liberal Republicans began to leave the party as it continued to push farther to the right during the 1980s and 1990s. So what began as an electoral strategy Republicans became a long-term process for dividing parties on ideological lines.
The graph above shows how strongly polarized each party has become over the past 20 years. Even more importantly, it shows how those who are more politically active are even less ideologically diverse. Elected officials are only products of the parties they represent. When those who donate, volunteer, and vote for officials toe a strict ideological line, officials will hold that line as well. By the 112th Congress (2011-2012), this ideological division lead to no ideological overlap in Congress. That means no Democrat was more conservative than any Republican and no Republican was more liberal than any Democrat. Therefore isn’t so surprising that very little has been accomplished in Congress when there is a shrinking zone of agreement.