According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties. In the House, the most conservative Democrat, Bobby Bright, of Alabama, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao, of Louisiana. The same was true in the Senate, where the most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Olympia Snowe, of Maine. According to Poole and Rosenthal’s data, both the House and the Senate are more polarized today than at any time since the eighteen-nineties.
It isn’t just polarization that has afflicted Washington. It is ideological extremism that is largely to blame for the inaction of Congress in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — what one scholar who has studied the problem refers to as “asymmetrical polarization.”
The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.
The use of 1975 as a baseline is a little strange. If Professor Hacker had used the year 1972 or even 1974 to plot his graph, he would have found a huge shift among Democrats to the far left as the ’75 “Watergate babies” — almost universally “New Left” liberals who replaced more moderate or conservative Democrats — would have substantially evened the gap between Democrats and the GOP in the House.
No matter. The point is made. For a large number of conservatives and many liberals who are being taunted with the epithet “RINO” or “DINO,” the fact remains that they have not left their party. Their party has left them. Those who can’t stomach the extremism, the obstructionism, the radicalism of the neo-liberals and Tea Party conservatives who both seek to hammer each other into the ground on a daily basis are largely left on the outside, viewing the slow-motion train wreck that politics has become with a feeling of abject helplessness.
It’s not a question of “moderates” not holding power. One can be liberal or conservative and be pragmatic enough to work with the other side on the big issues of the day. The problem is, pragmatism is dead — killed by the excessively ideological base of both parties who view compromise as treason, and comity as cowardice. Both sides are so besotted with a warped and tangled view of each other that they occasionally — unintentionally — provide comic relief for our political culture.
The debt ceiling deal reached by President Obama and Speaker Boehner is one such example of a mirthful interlude. Both sides screamed bloody murder that their guy had botched it and had been taken by the other. It would do no good to point out that it would have been impossible for both sides to be “taken” on any one deal, so one side has to be in error. Guessing which one means that you will be acknowledged a genius by 50% of the extremists from both parties.
This kind of idiocy aside, the lack of pragmatism in both parties means that even the formerly simple tasks of government become ideological mountains to climb. Back in the good old days when Congress was made up of sane crooks and charlatans, the president’s appointments were mostly pro-forma exercises in governance. Cabinet secretaries, undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries were supported (or at least, unopposed) by the opposition as a matter of course. The president was not begrudged the courtesy of being able to pick his own people. Judges — unless they were closet cases or rabid racists (and even then they were sometimes given a pass) — were confirmed by voice vote or desultory roll calls with few dissenting votes.
Today, both parties go to war over federal judges, undersecretaries, ambassadors, and other appointees as if the fate of the republic hung on whether an appointee was too far left or right. Democrats did it to Bush as much as Republicans have done it to Obama. The process is broken and the consequences are a hobbled government at all levels. Whatever efforts to achieve a pragmatic solution — such as the “Gang of 14″ who came to an agreement in 2007 regarding some of President Bush’s judicial appointees — are derided by both sides, undermined, and then destroyed by partisan sniping.
If one defines pragmatism as viewing the world as it is, prioritizing what’s important, and recognizing the validity and good faith of the other side in order to work together to solve problems, then there is a gravestone somewhere on Capitol Hill that might read:
Here lies the remains of pragmatic politics. Killed by excessive ideology and rank partisanship. Survived by the American republic — but for how long, no one can say.