A puzzle on US politics

by John Q on June 12, 2006

One of the striking features of US politics over the past fifteen years is the rise of partisan feeling. The blogosphere reflects this, and has helped to accelerate it. Whereas US political discussion used to be dominated by appeals to bipartisanship there now seems to be more party-specific rancour than, for example, in Australia.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of commentary about the absence of competitive races and the increasing advantage of incumbency.

These two trends seem inconsistent to me. Of course, with strong partisan loyalties you expect a fair number of safe seats for either party, but the discussion of incumbency is mostly about the strength of individual incumbents. And even with many safe seats, there ought also to be a large number of marginals.

Has anyone attempted to reconcile these conflicting trends?



Seth Finkelstein 06.12.06 at 6:40 pm

Yes. You’re an Aussie, so it’s not clear to you, but in the US, it’s no puzzle.

The “safe” seats are created by redistricting so that the voters are overwhelmingly of one political party. That means in effect whoever wins the *party* nomination, wins the general election for the seat.

Party primary voters are well-known to be more partisan. The way to win the *party* primary is to appeal to those partisans.

Plus the Republicans have very explicitly focused on motivating the partisans as the key to victory (it’s not that they invented the strategy, but they’ve been working that angle with much greater success in the recent past). Making it work has been taken to be Karl Rove’s great achievement in practical political science.

There’s plenty of discussion of this in some US political punditry, it’s pretty standard analysis, though wonkish.


Ian Whitchurch 06.12.06 at 6:41 pm


There ought to be lots of marginals, but by a lot of hard and brilliant work, there isnt.

Imagine, for a second, that Sussex St get to draw the electorial boundaries in NSW.

Thats how it all works in the US – totally gerrymandered, either by one party (ie Texas) or both (ie California).

Add to this candidate-based fundraising, and things get really ugly for someone in a seat held by the opposition, because until you have a massive war chest, the seat isnt seen as winnable, so contributors send money elsewhere, where it can do more good.

Ian Whitchurch


nick s 06.12.06 at 7:06 pm

The triumph of incumbency is all about redistricting and pork. Polling is reliable here: people will give big disapproval ratings to Congress in general, but approval ratings to their own porker.

When you have districts gerrymandered so that incumbents require a big swing to lose, you get the creation of rotten boroughs — some of which are now hereditary fiefdoms — and partisanship spilling out of electoral politics.


John Quiggin 06.12.06 at 7:13 pm

I’m still not satisfied. From a party point of view, good quality gerrymanders (assuming equal numbers of voters per district) have to win a lot of seata for relatively few votes. That means locking up the opposing party voters in a few very safe districts, but the party doing the gerrymander can’t afford many ultra-safe districts of its own.

By contrast, when the gerrymander is driven by individuals, they all try to make their districts safe.

Also, as I mentioned, discussion of incumbency focuses on individual incumbents, not parties – races are said to be open when the sitting member retires.

None of this seems to be consistent with a highly partisan system, where the personal vote accruing to an incumbent should be no more than a few percentage points. It seems to me that the system is still in transition.


blah 06.12.06 at 7:28 pm

When you are talking about the House of Representatives, the lack of competition is primarily the result of gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering has become very efficient within the last 10 years, with some pretty sophisticated software allowing the line-drawers to draw boundaries at the household level.

You don’t need to draw ultra-safe districts to maximize your party’s representatives, you need to create the maximum number of districts with a reasonably safe margin – say 10%. Barring any big swings in party affiliation, you maximize your party’s victories by diluting the other party’s voters.

At the level of the Senate, redistricting doesn’t matter. Money plays a much bigger factor in Senate races. Elections for Senate seats occur every 6 years (compared to every 2 years for the House), allowing more time for incumbents to fill their war chests. Senate seats are also more valuable per seat, so the national party has a lot more incentive to channel money into the seats that need it the most. As a result, it takes a lot of money to beat an incumbent.


blah 06.12.06 at 7:44 pm

It should also be noted that in the U.S. redistricting generally occurs every 10 years following the census. So there is a bit of a time lag involved. The current districts are the result of the 2000 round of redistricting.

The 1990 round of redisctricting was a bit of a failure by Democrats, particularly in the South. Either they did not provide enough safety margin for their safe districts, or the saftey margin was overwhelmed by a change in party affiliation. The result was the 1992 election that saw a relatively large swing in the House over to control by the Republicans.

The Republicans have generally been much more ruthlessly efficient in their gerrymandering. The Democrats seem to be more willing to engage in “bi-partisan gerrymandering” when they control the process – as in California.


Marc 06.12.06 at 7:54 pm

The wildcard in US politics is ethnic voting patterns. As noted above, you only need to create 55-45 districts to make it very difficult for the other party to win. Blacks in the US are a major democratic voting group, with a partisan margin of 90+% for democratic candidates. It’s very easy for the GOP to create almost all-black districts (which is supported by black politicians) and then surround them with 55-45 GOP districts.

This year may actually make this policy backfire for the Republicans, because if the voter sentiment against them is strong enough all of those 55-45 districts could flip to the Democrats, and the advantages of incumbency will make them somewhat tougher to flip back.


P O'Neill 06.12.06 at 8:11 pm

I’ve read this post a few times and I’m still not sure I see the contradiction. Consider the UK. I think people would accept that it has gotten less partisan in recent years as Labour & the Tories have converged on many policies. Surely less partisan than when the Sun would have a touched-up photo of Neil Kinnock on the front page. Yet have the Tories had a chance in hell of getting a seat in Scotland in the last couple of elections, or indeed the next one? With strong regional effects in voting patterns in a plurality voting system, I don’t see why partisanship and individual incumbency trade off. Particularly in systems in the UK and US, where there in fact no direct voting for national office.


Martin James 06.12.06 at 8:27 pm


I think the logic runs from the safe seats(at the party level) to the partisanship.

In other words, in a majority of the races, winning the party primary of the dominant party means winning the seat. So, if nationally the parties are split 50-50 on some political scale, then instead of battling over the center you are battling over either the 25th or the 75th percentile (on a national scale).

Even in the senate races this can happen, for example it may happen with Lieberman. Too much identification with the opposite party may cost him in the primary.

The other thing that leads to partisanship in the USA is the amount of geographic mobility and self-sorting that take place in state of residence. There tends to be a self-reinforcing cycle of politcal differences leading to states attracting more of the same kind of people.

For example, the parties tend to be well differentiated on the number of children in the family. Less than 1.5 kids per household: very democratic, more than 2.0 kids per household: very republican.

On the other hnad, I don’t there is much data about a change in partisanship. From 1987 to 2004 the split between Democrat, Republican and unaligned hasn’t changed more than a percent or 2 either way, with the unaligned group being larger than either of the party groups (38,33,29 for UA, Dem, Rep.)

The thing that has changed in the last 15 years is the shift in control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans. The near lock on the house for the democrats before 1994 effectively meant Republicans had to be bipartisan. The question is “why were the democrats more bipartisan when they had control of the entire government?” The answer likely is that the South had conservative democrats which made for more ideological difference within the Democratic party.

Effectively you could say that what has happened in the last 15 years is that the South changed parties giving it better ability to enforce political control on its party.

Its not historical but it works to say that the South sold the northeast in exchange for the republican states sans the west coast.

What you should think when you hear people saying increasing partisan feeling, is that those people don’t run the show anymore.


John Quiggin 06.12.06 at 8:30 pm

Marc is getting fairly close to the point I was trying to get at. If partisanship is strong, people in 55-45 districts who have become annoyed with the ruling party should switch, regardless of any liking for the incumbent candidate.


Bob N. 06.12.06 at 8:33 pm

Gerrymandering, surpisingly, has very little to do with the absence of competitive races. It might in theory, but in practice other factors trump it. In particular, incumbents enjoy a huge advantage in name-recognition and fundraising capacity. There’s even a feedback mechanism at work. Challengers have a hard time raising money because of the perception that incumbents are unbeatable–and each dollar matters more to a challenger than to an incumbent. That’s why, even in districts that are marginal by the numbers, incumbents are realatively safe.

Growing partisanship seems to me to be a separate issue entirely. To some extent, it’s a function of the two parties’ electoral strategies, which have focused on getting out the base vote. The need to cover your extreme flank in a primary may also play a role, although serious primary challenges are as rare as losing incumbents. Also, the House has been very closely divided for the last decade, and the ruling Republicans have dealt with that by enforcing strict party discipline. Granted, that wasn’t the only option, but having chosen it they ensured a period of fierce partisanship.


Andrew 06.12.06 at 8:40 pm

John: “I’m still not satisfied. From a party point of view, good quality gerrymanders (assuming equal numbers of voters per district) have to win a lot of seata for relatively few votes. That means locking up the opposing party voters in a few very safe districts, but the party doing the gerrymander can’t afford many ultra-safe districts of its own.”

The difference between the US and Australia in this regard is that our (Oz) voting is compulsory, and theirs isn’t. So in the US, the candidates get selected by their own party’s most partisan voters, as outlined above; then even a moderately gerrymandered seat can be made safe as houses by driving down opposition turnout. You don’t even need to go to legally questionable extremes like electoral roll manipulation to achieve this; a good old fashioned negative campaign will do the trick.

In Australia, a candidate knows that the opposition is guaranteed to show up, so he or she is more likely to need to continue to appeal positively to their own (and some of the opposition’s) supporters to keep them onside.

Compulsory voting is not foolproof – see Qld in the Joh years – but it’s still a brake on excess partisanship as you really do need to get 50%+1 of the population to win, not just 50%+1 of those who can’t be persuaded not to vote.


Andrew 06.12.06 at 8:42 pm

“If partisanship is strong, people in 55-45 districts who have become annoyed with the ruling party should switch, regardless of any liking for the incumbent candidate.”

Exactly. In Australia they likely will do so; in the US they don’t have to, as they have the option of not voting at all.


Martin James 06.12.06 at 8:45 pm


Its much the minority of house seats that are as close as 55-45. Estimates run 30 to 50 for competitive seats. I think you are discounting that gerrymandering sits on top of huge state differences in parties, for example Massachusetts has 10 democrats and no republican representatives.


Dan Kervick 06.12.06 at 9:23 pm

Let me propose a highly simplified model that describes a situation in which intense partisanship coexists with a very strong correlation between incumbency and electoral victory, but where gerrymandering plays no essential explanatory role.

Suppose there are two political parties, A and B, and that each voter is affiliated with one of those two parties.

Let’s measure ideological partisanship on a 10 point scale: 1 representing the most intense degree of A-partisanship and 10 representing the most intense degree of B-partisanship.

Let’s suppose a highly partisan electorate: the typical A-Party voter falls in the 2 range on the scale and the typical B-Party voter falls in the 8 range on the scale. Let’s also assume universal partisanship – the average voter rating is independent of district, and depends only on party affiliation. So 2 and 8 are not just the national averages, but the average in each district.

Suppose in 1/3 of the districts, call them “A-districts”, 2/3 of the voters are affiliated with and A-Party and 1/3 are affiliated with the B-Party. Suppose in an additional 1/3 of the districts, call them “B-districts”, 2/3 of the voters is associated with the B-Party and 1/3 with the A-Party.

Suppose that in the remaining 1/3 of districts, the contested districts, the voters are equally divided by party affiliation.

Now let’s posit the following relationships between candidates and voters:

Suppose that in both the A-districts and the B-districts the typical A-Party candidate has a 2 rating, and the typical B-Party candidate has an 8 rating, just like the voters in those districts. In other words, in districts where the outcome is not in doubt and the challenger lacks a realistic chance of winning by moderating, the candidates tend to line up with voter preferences.

Suppose in the contested districts, by contrast, the candidates move toward the middle to pursue victory. So, while the voters in those districts are highly partisan, with the typical A-voter a 2 and the typical B-voter an 8, the typical A-candidate is instead a 4.75 and the typical B-candidate a 5.25.

I think we could predict the following relationships between incumbency and outcomes:

In A-districts, A-candidates almost always win. Thus incumbency is a highly reliable predictor of electoral victory – not because the power of incumbency itself produces victory, but because the clear partisan affiliation of the candidate produces continued victories for that candidate, with incumbency as a causal consequence rather than a cause. Incumbency thus correlates strongly with victory.

The same strong correlation will hold between incumbency and victory in B-districts, for the same reason.

In the contested districts, the weak party affiliation of the candidates gives even the highly partisan voter little reason either to prefer or oppose those candidates, since from the perspective of the partisan voter, the candidates are close to indistinguishable. Thus in these close races, the power of incumbency plays a deciding role. If the candidates are indistinguishable ideologically, then some voters may decide the contest based the advantages of incumbency: for example, based on which candidate already possesses a senior committee position in the legislature, and the accompanying ability to bring government spending to the district. A partisan A-voter may vote for a 5.25 incumbent B-candidate over a 4.75 A-candidate, because the B-candidate has established influence, is the “devil you know”, etc.

Gerrymandering need not be a factor here. Even if the shapes of legislative districts are constitutionally fixed, and the current incumbents possess no power to redraw them, there can be start imbalances in voter affiliation among the districts. We can assume that the imbalances are due to historical and geographical factors, for example.

Of course the US system differs from this idealized model in many ways. For one thing, in the US system there are large numbers of independent voters, affiliated with neither party. But the two major parties have an absolute lock on electoral politics. Since Democrats and Republicans are highly partisan, and the Representatives and Senators they elect are also highly partisan, these independent voters are often faced with a choice between a partisan Republican and a partisan Democrat. They may find themselves evenly split between the candidates, not because they find them indistinguishable, but because they find them equally unattractive. In such a situation, incumbency may again prove a deciding factor.


Marc 06.12.06 at 9:51 pm

A nice academic exercise Dan, but gerrymandering does exist. Look at contested states at the presidential level. Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are three large states which are closely contested in national politics. All three have strongly republican congressional majorities; in all three the republican party drew the district boundaries. This sort of pattern is self-reinforcing – if you control the state houses, and can manage to win the governorships, you get to keep drawing favorable lines. This will probably change in the likelihood that the democrats get (and hold) the governor’s mansions in states like this. In the South, you must factor in racial politics. And, yes, there are definite regional trends; the GOP is rapidly heading towards being eliminated in the Northeast. It’s entirely possible that the result of this midterm election could be a completely Democratic delegation from New England at the house level – which represents a complete reversal of historical patterns.


John Emerson 06.12.06 at 10:04 pm

I think that it’s true that Republican gerrymandering has cut it a little too close for comfort. Even Delay’s seat supposedly isn’t safe any more.


Charles S 06.12.06 at 10:59 pm

Actually, Delay intentionally gave himself the least safe Republican seat in his criminal gerrymander, on the assumption that he was sufficiently powerful to hold an unsafe seat without any difficulty. Which, if he hadn’t been so flagrantly criminal, he almost certainly would have been able to do.


abb1 06.13.06 at 2:15 am

Of course, with strong partisan loyalties you expect a fair number of safe seats for either party, but the discussion of incumbency is mostly about the strength of individual incumbents.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it true that the parties simply don’t allow primary challenges in safe districts? To run in a primary against an incumbent you’ll need at least some party support and if it’s not there the incumbent will get in without a hitch.

If the incumbent is sufficiently disciplined in toeing the party line, the party will try to make sure there is no primary challenge – and that’s a typical scenario; if he/she doesn’t want to play ball – then the party will promote and finance a challenger, but that’s a rare scenario: they’ll play ball, they know what’s good for them.

I think this is pretty much the answer to your question.


Dr. Moreau 06.13.06 at 2:39 am

One might argue that the last person to try to figure the phenomenon out was Neal Postman.


goatchowder 06.13.06 at 4:20 am

Just about everything in the American political system was designed to be sluggish, inefficient, and slow to turn with the winds of political change.

It has taken 40+ years for the country to turn so far to the right; it’ll take just as long for it to turn to the left. Yes, we are becoming more partisan. Yes, thos 55-45 districts will turn around. Yes, soon after that happens, the country will be less partisan, things will correct, we’ll go back to ignoring politics and focussing instead on making mone and watching T.V. and eating junk food. Then, when the country falls to hell again, we’ll stick our heads up and start paying attention to politics again, start being more partisan, and those 55-45 seats will be in danger of flipping again.

Ask this question 20 years from now; you’ll have your answer.


nick s 06.13.06 at 6:58 am

For practical examples of gerrymandering, there’s no better example than the new Texas map drawn up by DeLay and voted in by the Texas state legislature. The state capital, Austin, was previously at the core of one district, meaning that its Democrat-leaning electorate delivered the seat. Now it’s been divided up into three districts that encompass large rural swathes, with a Republican majority in two of them.

(There’s a slightly less egregious case in North Carolina, designed to create a ‘black district’ extending from Charlotte along the I-85 corridor, and removing minority voters from the surrounding districts.)

Remember also that US congressional districts are much larger than UK or Australian constituencies, meaning that it’s possible to draw the lines more widely.

Lastly, as others have mentioned, there’s a psychological impact behind the solidifying of gerrymandered districts. It’s a rare thing for elections to be uncontested in the UK or Oz, but relatively common in the US, as one party decides that it’s not worth the expense of competing. (In contrast, the ‘blooding process’ for British candidates more or less demands that a candidate be sent to fight a losing battle.)


John Emerson 06.13.06 at 7:19 am

No one seems to have mentioned the movement conservatives yet. They really took off with Gingrich, though their roots were way back at the Goldwater defeat.

The movement conservatives are determined to destroy liberalism and completely restructure the US. They do not recognize the legitimacy of liberals and Democrats, or even of conservative and moderate Republicans who are willing to work with liberals and Democrats. Along with a highly partisan strategy they’ve adopted uncompromising, highly partisan tactics, which include smears, character assassination, and a preference for electing extreme candidates and passing extreme laws in close votes (rather than trying for consensus.) For them a candidate who gets 65% of the vote isn’t conservative enough, and a bill in Congress which gets 65% of the votes isn’t either.

It’s only just starting to be symmetrical. I’m a Democrat (or anti-Republican) who’s as partisan as the Republicans are, but until recently many or most Democrats haven’t believed that victory is possible, and many of them still long for the old days of comity and mutual respect.


eweininger 06.13.06 at 7:43 am

At an intuitive level, it seems to me that Martin James made an important point when he mentioned the ongoing disappearance of those from the base of each party who were ideologically distant from its “core” principles–i.e. “conservative Democrats” and “Rockefeller Republicans”.

Of course, mentioning these groups simply pushes back the original question: why did these long-established segments of the electorate starts to evaporate when they did, leading to the more polarized electorate John Quiggin observes?

In the case of the dems, let me note that the answer is clearly tied up with a unique feature of U.S. history: black/white race relations. In other words, the key term that has been missing from this discussion is Southern Strategy.


SamChevre 06.13.06 at 8:08 am

I still think gerrymandering is the largest contributing factor, and if you look at the whole process, the relationship between partisanship and incumbency bacomes clearer. (This is a VA state-level explanation.)
Gerrymandering is done:
1) by parties
2) to protect their “good” incumbents
3) from both internal and external challenge

The key point is “good” incumbents. In Virginia, as in most states, it is fairly clear who the reasonable challengers for legislative seats are. Quite often, district line-drawing is is done to keep possible challengers out of incumbents’ districts–BUT that is only done for “good” (e.g. partisan) incumbents. If you are Republican and buck the leadership too much, they will redistrict a strong challenger into your district. (The Democrats did the same when they controlled the GA). Thus, partisan legislators are rewarded by partisan districts in their favor–the parties use gerrymandering to increase their number of seats, but also, crucially, to keep their own members aligned with the party.

Another factor in increasing partisanship is that there is a change in the political power balance; the people who used to win everything (liberals) are now losing sometimes, and are extremely unhappy about it. They are in the same position as conservatives in the 1930’s (another era of intense partisan rancour).


Avery 06.13.06 at 9:42 am

If gerrymandering is (were) the correct explanation, then Arizona and Vermont state house races should have gotten much more contested in the 2002 and 2004 elections, since each of those states (supposedly) eliminated gerrymandering through a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Does anyone know what the results of those have been? a) Are the state house races there more competitive than before? b) Does the parties’ representation in the state house correspond to their representation in the electorate? c) Are the elected representatives on the whole more bipartisan than before, or than their peers in other states?


Martin James 06.13.06 at 9:52 am

People who want less partisanship should be careful what they ask for.

The most concensus election in terms of electoral vote was Nixon in 1972 520 to 17 and in terms of percent of the popular vote Reagan in 1984 at 58.8%.

The increased partisanship from this point of view is California changing the type of governors it will support. The country has become less republican in presidential elections leading to more partisanship.


Christopher Ball 06.13.06 at 12:44 pm

Actually, #11 is right that gerrymandering is over-emphasized. Senate incumbents mostly win too and gerrymandering is irrelevant there. The media and franking advantages of incumbents is a key reason they dominate most challengers. The exception is challengers who themselves have extensive name recognition and media attention, and that is lilkey to occur at the district level than the state level. The nationalization of the media and the disinterest of local media in congressional delegations reinforces this as well.

But I also don’t see the puzzle. Partisanship makes people loyal to their party’s candidate, and so the voters in 55-45 districts stick with their incumbent. Increased partisanship reinforces the advantages of incumbency, which are institutional not personalistic. Partisanship serves to prevent side-switching. The majority of voters are not independents even where independents are the plurality among Reps and Dems.


JR 06.13.06 at 8:23 pm

John Quiggan- there is a rule about American politics. Learn it and you will never go wrong. Here is the rule: Whenever you don’t understand something, the answer is race.

The important fact is that until the 1970’s the Republicans and Democrats were not genuinely national parties. They were coalitions of regional parties.

The Democrats were a coalition of Northern urban immigrants (Irish, Italians, Jews), western farmers, and southern white racists of all economic and social classes. Right up to 1972, white Southerners would not vote Republican under any circumstances because the Republicans were the party of Lincoln. But after the New Deal, white Southern Democrats were far more conservative than Northern Democrats on every issue.

Republicans were also a coalition party: Northern industrialists and professionals; mid-western country club, main street businessmen; western resource owners (oil, mining, ranching); Southern blacks.

Because party organization was on the state level, not the national level, each state Democratic or Republican party got along quite well on its own, coming together only once every four years in a loose coalition that held just long enough to run a presidential election campaign.

So once in Congress, legislators found that their party affiliations had little to do with their political inclinations. Region and class made more of a difference. So “bipartisanship” flourished.

But then came Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The Democrats unequivocally declared that to be a Democrat, you had to accept that Black people are human beings. White Southerners wouldn’t accept that, so they left the Democratic party, voting first for George Wallace in 1968 and then for Nixon in 1972.

It took 30 years to purge every last conservative Democrat out of the South, but it’s happened- the last to go was Zell Miller, who famously supported GW Bush at the 2000 Republican convention.

The Republican embrace of the racist, fundamentalist South has had the effect of driving the former liberal and moderate Republicans of the northeast into the Democratic party.

So the parties have realigned along ideological lines, and partisanship is now the natural order of things.


John Quiggin 06.14.06 at 1:22 am

jr, I agree with all you’ve said. I just can’t see how it’s beneficial to individual incumbents.

I end up with the conclusion that the strength of incumbents is a relic of bipartisanship which made things like seniority count for more than party/factional affiliation.


eweininger 06.14.06 at 8:52 am

It took 30 years to purge every last conservative Democrat out of the South, but it’s happened- the last to go was Zell Miller, who famously supported GW Bush at the 2000 Republican convention.

Alas, we haven’t been rid of him that long: he supported Bush–very flamboyantly and very obnoxiously–at the 04 convention.


Martin James 06.14.06 at 2:22 pm


Many comments explain things as follows.

1. Incumbents are safe where a seat is safe for a party because parties prevent challenges within the party.

2. There are many seats safe for parties because people who agree on party tend to live together plus gerrymandering isolates them even more.

I’m not sure which of these 2 points you don’t agree with.

In post 10 you say that people who have become annoyed with the ruling party should switch.

I think you are counting on 2 things: first that there are a lot of people annoyed at a ruling party that they voted for. And second that they are annoyed in such a way that they think the other party would better suit them.

This is why people mention the various wedge issues used by the parties to protect their brand loyalty. You have red state people (say 65-35, republican) and blue state people (65-35 democrat). Just because the red state people are annoyed with their Republican government, why is it in their interest to vote with the opposite party, which is far from politcal brand that they started out liking.

A bad analogy would be the sunni and shia in Iraq; they have become increasingly partisan. If the Shia don’t like their current government are you surprised when they don’t vote for a Sunni?

For about 2/3’s of the populace and a higher percentage of voters, their party is part of their
identity,that is only changed under great stress and strain.

Gerrymandering and self-selection have put the independents is districts with people that tend to vote like them.

At root, I just wonder why you think increased partisanship would mean that the populace should/would be more willing to switch parties or representatives?


howardl 06.14.06 at 3:05 pm

Two other aspects, so far unmentioned, have to do with personalities rather than political theory:
1. For 50+ years, with one short hiatus, Democrats were the majority in both houses. Over the years, Democrats learned, or acquired the habit, of treating Republicans with a certain noblesse oblige; Republican leadership would be consulted respectfully. And Republicans learned or acquired the habit of surrendering themselves to a minority position. Newt Gingrich changed that. The Republicans in majority were not used to being in the majority and the Democrats were not used to being in the minority. There is no doubt in my mind that this created a heightened state of personal rancor among the elected representatives on Capitol Hill.

2. The Clarence Thomas hearings elevated the personal over the political in a new way. This has led to a still-ongoing cycle of “gotcha politics.” Republicans, having been forced to admit that a person who did what Thomas was accused of should be disqualified from high office, insisted on applying that same rule to Clinton, “exposing” the fact that Democrats didn’t care about the principle, but only about opposing Thomas. Democrats, having listened to months of rhetoric about whether lying is a grounds for impeachment, want to “expose” the hypocrisy of Republicans who will oppose impeachment of Bush.

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