Picture it: Washington, 1977

Ezra Klein takes advantage of the lack of progress toward resolving the federal government shutdown and offers “The 13 reasons Washington is failing.” Almost all of them (like Big Business losing any control over the Republican Party) are recent and not necessarily permanent. Only the last—“Our system of government is cracking under the stress”—is something that will threaten us forever because Americans are too thin-skinned to contemplate the possibility that more recent democracies have improved on our cotton-gin political structure. (Majority rule, metric system, meh.)

Of the entire baker’s dozen, Klein says that “the big one” is that “the parties have never been further apart”:

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For much of the 20th century, America’s two major political parties were ideologically diverse. The Republican Party included both Barry Goldwater and George Romney. The Democratic Party included both Strom Thurmond and Eugene McCarthy. The spread of political opinions in each party made it cross-aisle deals easier and organized, extended party warfare harder. Bipartisan votes were common. Filibusters were rare.

You have to be older than 40 to really appreciate how true this was. Only a few decades ago, it was possible for either party to win U.S. Senate and governor’s races in every state. The conservative wing of the Democratic Party and the liberal wing of the Republican Party—liberal, mind you, not “moderate”—won major offices in states they couldn’t carry in presidential elections. Neither Democrats nor Republicans moved in lockstep on major issues because most officeholders adapted to their state’s political idiosyncrasies and tried to appeal to voters outside of their parties.

Let’s compare the make-up of the U.S. Senate after two presidential elections won narrowly by Democrats, Barack Obama in 2012 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Today there are 22 senators who do not caucus with the party that carried their state in the presidential race. This is low by historical standards, and the number is likely to dip into the teens over the next year and a half, assuming that Democrat Cory Booker takes over the seat of an appointed Republican in New Jersey this month and that the GOP finally wins seats next year in formerly blue states like Arkansas and West Virginia. We’re approaching a situation where ticket-splitting occurs only in the case of scandal (i.e., when Republican Mark Kirk won Obama’s old Illinois seat after Gov. Rod Blagojevich poisoned it for the Democrats) or truly incompetent candidates (Todd Akin in Missouri). Candidates who promise to work with colleagues across the aisle just aren’t as successful anymore, in part because it’s easier to raise money (especially from out-of-state contributors) by stressing party loyalty.

By comparison, in 1977 there were 42 senators* who did not caucus with the party that won their state in the previous year’s presidential election. This high number was not only attributable to the large number of moderates (“mavericks”?) in both parties, but also to the last presidential election pitting a moderate Democrat (Jimmy Carter) against a moderate Republican (Gerald Ford). At all levels of government, both parties overlapped to a degree unimaginable today.

The result was a U.S. Senate that was highly factionalized as opposed to highly partisan, making it easier to cobble a majority depending on the issue at hand. The Senate could be broken down into at least eight factions, depending on the electoral forces at home:

• liberal Democrats from solidly blue states (e.g., Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts)

• conservative Republicans from solidly red states (e.g., Barry Goldwater in Arizona)

• liberal Republicans from solidly blue states (e.g., Jacob Javits in New York)

• conservative Democrats from solidly red states (e.g., Ed Zorinsky in Nebraska)

• mostly liberal Democrats from red-leaning states (e.g., George McGovern in South Dakota)

• mostly conservative Republicans from blue-leaning states (e.g, Bill Roth in Delaware)

• moderate Democrats from Republican-trending states that still voted for Carter (e.g., Sam Nunn in Georgia)

• moderate Republicans from Democratic-trending states that still voted for Ford (e.g., Mark Hatfield in Oregon)

Today there’s no need to create such a taxonomy. Most votes in the Senate are party-line, even when the country faces an impasse such as the current government shutdown. There’s a strong argument for cohesive parties—voters get a genuine choice, and they know what they’re getting when they vote red or blue—but as Klein points out, our constitutional system was not created with them in mind. “The result,” he writes, “is deep governmental dysfunction as a system that requires bipartisan cooperation collides with political parties that can't cooperate.”

*Members of the Democratic Senate caucus same from the Ford states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado (2), Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa (2), Maine (2), Michigan, Montana (2), Nebraska (2), Nevada, New Hampshire (2), New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota (2), Vermont, Virginia, and Washington (2).

Members of the Republican Senate caucus came from the Carter states of Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania (2), Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
4 years 1 month ago
Which party has changed the most since 1977? I left the Democratic party because their policies were changing radically from what they were in previous decades. The Tea Party is about fiscal sanity not doing away with the government. They would consider it an incredible victory just to return to the levels of spending that was present during the Bill Clinton years when Clinton said he could not imagine doing anything more, The author should get out more and visit non liberal sites and should read David Carlin's book "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?" The Catholics of old would definitely say no to today's Democratic party. http://www.amazon.com/Can-Catholic-Democrat-David-Carlin/dp/1933184191/ref=la_B001JP1JOQ_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381252117&sr=1-2

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