How modern politics killed compromise

The following passage is from Amy Walter, writing for the Cook Political Report last week. She’s (rightly) worried that the absolutism demanded of campaigns is making sound governance impossible.

There’s a reason why the people who run campaigns are rarely the people responsible for implementing policy. The job of a campaign operative is to work in absolutes – you win or you lose, there’s no gray area. The job of a policy operative, of course, is to look for the gray, to look for solutions within the increasingly narrowing options of our polarized political system.

However, the way one wins a campaign ultimately determines how an incumbent and his/her party can (or cannot) legislate. And, the way that both sides have boxed themselves in on tough issues like immigration, entitlements, and climate change on the campaign trail ultimately leaves little room for any meaningful compromise in a 2015 Congress.

There are two problems with ending the argument there.

First, the reasons why campaigns demand hard-line absolutes aren’t new by any means. Good/bad binaries have always been and will continue to be easier to package into information that voters understand and respond to than qualified gray areas.

Second, Congress used to have a number of institutional norms and mechanisms that served to counteract scorched-earth madness of the campaign trail. Their absence, along with a few other things, have been the real contributors to compromise’s decline.

Campaigns and their consequences have always been polarized

Throughout America’s political history, campaigns have always been nasty, and their consequences have always been partisan. Here are a few examples:

1800: The very first presidential campaign featuring nominees from two opposing political parties pitted the Federalists’ John Adams against the Democratic-Republicans’ Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson called Adams a tyrant (not-so-subtly alluding to King George) and Adams called Jefferson an atheist. Jefferson won, and the first thing his new Democratic-Republican congressional majority did was repeal and replace the Federalists’ law concerning the organization of the nation’s court system.

1860: In an election that hinged on the most polarizing issue in the history of our democracy, slavery, the Democrats pointed to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech as evidence that he was a secret abolitionist (they also called him a “black Republican“). At the time, he didn’t meet the definition of abolitionist since he was fine with slavery remaining legal in the states that already had it, but it didn’t matter to his political opponents who wanted to scare anyone who was in any way squeamish about freeing African-Americans. Lincoln won, leading the Democratic South to break the tenuous legislative truce it had struck with the Republican rest-of-the-country over slavery, and the rest is history.

Not for nothing, doesn’t the “secret abolitionist” barb sound an awful lot like Republicans’ rhetoric on immigration reform (sorry, “amnesty“) on steroids?

1920: As argued by Professor Jeffrey Tullis in his book, The Rhetorical Presidency, you can trace the steady diet of red meat the American electorate is fed every year all the way back to the Progressive Era, which came to a head with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The Progressive Movement was marked by absolutist stances on women’s suffrage and the progressive income tax (which we can safely say were good) and Prohibition (not so good) — all three of which culminated in Constitutional amendments (compromise legislation be damned). While the movement included presidents from both political parties, the escalation in rhetoric was so stark that, by the end of Wilson’s presidency it had made it difficult for him to effectively communicate with Congress, which was tired of him making grandiose claims to the public that he couldn’t back up when it was time to actually hash out new policies.

1950: McCarthyism. Need I say more?

All this is to say that raging political rhetoric — mostly during but not limited to campaign season — is nothing new in this country. When we scratch our heads wondering why Congress can’t get anything done, one thing we can rule out is the notion that 21st Century American discourse is particularly rigid and nasty compared to other eras.

There are plenty of other reasons why compromise is dead

Instead, there are a few things that have changed in the last couple of decades that go much farther in explaining why our current batch of representatives can’t agree on anything:

The end of pork: One of the easiest attack lines in American politics — “pork barrel project” — is also the reason behind any major piece of compromise legislation. Without pork, members of Congress have no incentive to vote for bills that are in the national interest but not in theirs. Perhaps most famously, Lyndon Johnson may not have been able to pass the Civil Rights Act had he not thrown his support behind the Central Arizona Water Project in exchange for Democratic Senator Carl Hayden’s vote.

GOP House Speaker John Boehner.

GOP House Speaker John Boehner.

The process that’s been called “political grease” for the legislative wheels was curtailed in 2010 by the new Republican majority in the House. Since their official ban on pork (although they still indulge when it suits them), legislative deals have been ground to a screeching halt. The problem is in part ideological, but it’s also very much political: with nothing on the table, there’s no incentive to bargain. In 2006, before House Republicans came to Jesus and banned members from voting in favor of bills containing earmarks, pork accounted for about one percent of the budget. That’s a small price to pay for being able to agree on the other 99 percent of it.

As perhaps the most famous (infamous?) solicitor of pork spending, former Senator Robert Byrd (D – WV) said, “potholes know no party.

The conclusion of party realignment: I caught some heat a while back for suggesting that “While Democrats have kinda moved to the left over the years; Republicans have lurched to the right.” Readers took issue with the whole Democrats kinda moving to the left thing, because corporatism. But the metric used to make that statement — the DW-Nominate score — is revealing: Democrats haven’t moved to the left because the American liberal has moved to the left; the Democratic Party has moved to the left because a bunch of Southern, conservative members have literally left the organization; and those former Democrats all became rabidly conservative Republicans. The Democrats who stayed didn’t get more liberal, they just constituted an ever-increasing proportion of the party, hence the party becoming more liberal in its (relative) voting patterns.

And since I wrote those damning words, polarization has continued to increase year over year.

The party realignment, which has its roots in the New Deal, scaled after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and was kicked into high gear by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1972, is only now reaching completion. The Blue Dog Coalition — predominantly Southern Democrats who share the closest relation to pre-1960s fiscal conservatism/states’ rights Democrats — now lists just 15 members. The realignment looks to continue this year, as red-state Democrats such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are all underdogs in their respective reelection bids. On the other side of the realignment, there are currently no Republican House members from the New England region, and only 17 House Republicans represent districts won by President Obama in 2012. That’s down from 79 Republicans in 1995 who represented districts President Clinton won in 1992.

And without pork, which crosses party lines to localize federal elections, the way in which a state or district votes for their representative is more likely to mirror how it votes for President. Not only does this mean that red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans are going to continue to be a dying breed, this lowers the overall incentive for compromise. Since the electorate is more polarized, Congress will be, too.

The better-matched ideology is with party, the less likely compromise becomes. The current trend has nothing to do with partisan rhetoric and everything to do with organizational membership and geography.

The voting filibuster: Our current Congress is on pace to pass fewer laws than any Congress since 1948, and part of the problem is procedural: the talking filibuster was far less effective than the cloture vote in gumming up the Senate’s works. Until relatively recently, filibusters went like this: someone would want to block a piece of legislation; they would talk for as long as they could to delay a vote; eventually, either they would get tired of talking or a cloture vote would be held; and then they would stop talking and a real vote would occur.

Using cloture as a go-to political tool really is a modern phenomenon. For the first 90 years that cloture existed — 1917 to 2007 — no Senate ever held more than 100 cloture votes. In fact, until 1990, the number only went above 50 once (1987-88). Our current Senate is on pace to approach 200 cloture votes by the time it ends its business.

So while the rhetoric hasn’t changed all that much, the game absolutely has.

The commuting Congressmember: As I’ve written before, perhaps the most disastrous thing Newt Gingrich did as Speaker of the House, and he did many disastrous things, was to tell his caucus to go home to their districts on weekends instead of staying in Washington. When the members actually lived in DC, instead of having an apartment there for the week and commuting to their district for the weekends, it meant that their kids went to the same schools, their families knew each other and, consequentially, they wound up hanging out. And what do you talk about when you hang out with your work colleagues outside of work? Often enough, well, work. Those kinds of relationships were forged irrespective of partisan alliances; without them, Congressmembers have no opportunities to be friends with each other outside of intra-party caucusing. That makes for fights, not amicable disagreements.

Now we consider it both intriguing and odd when Ted Cruz and Cory Booker have dinner together. That used to be normal, and it made our democracy function better.

Compromises aren’t forged on C-SPAN, where any inch given is recorded and exploited for everyone to see. More often than we’d care to admit, compromises — or at least the goodwill that makes them possible — are forged over an alcohol-fueled debate at 9pm on a Saturday. Now that Congress spends their weekends commuting and, let’s be honest, pandering to their districts instead of having friendly debates with each other (the absurd amount of time they have to spend fundraising doesn’t help, either — and the lost time is more damaging than the money raised), the opportunities for those kinds of cross-partisan policymaking are nearly impossible to come by.

All of this isn’t to say that invective without nuance is helpful for our democracy. This is to say, however, that if you want to identify the causes behind the inability of Congress to pass the compromise legislation that the electorate says it wants, you’ve still got all of your work ahead of you when you say that “the way that both sides have boxed themselves in on tough issues” is the reason why nothing meaningful is likely to get done in the 114th United States Congress.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Bill_Perdue

    One of the unmentioned origins of the first American Revolution was racism against slaves and native peoples.

    In his landmark book The Counter-Revolution of 1776 – Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by historian Gerald Horne he points out that “The successful 1776 revolt against British rule in North America has been hailed almost universally as a great step forward for humanity. But the Africans then residing in the colonies overwhelmingly sided with London. In this trailblazing book, Gerald Horne complements his earlier celebrated Negro Comrades of the Crown, by showing that in the prelude to 1776, the abolition of slavery seemed all but inevitable in London, delighting Africans as much as it outraged slaveholders, and sparking the colonial revolt.

    Even the US Department of State admits that “regulation of the western frontier was not significantly altered until Parliament passed the Quebec Act of 1774. … The act, which was passed at the same time as legislation placing Massachusetts under crown control, also fueled resentment among Calvinist New Englanders, who saw in its autocratic, pro-Catholic provisions further evidence of an imperial conspiracy against colonial liberties. … When the American Revolution began in 1774, tensions between settlers and Indians became a part of the conflict.” Washington, in particular, wanted to expand Virginia west and had major land claims that the Quebec Act disallowed.

  • Indigo

    We allow a breath-taking amount of nonsense. I suspect, fear actually, that the average citizen has already given up, surrendering public values for private illusions of security.

  • Indigo

    A solid argument can be made for that interpretation of American history. After all, it was a gentrified revolution, not a workers’ insurgency that led to the Declaration of Independence in the first place. A comprehensive analysis of all that is incomplete without a thorough review of the Masonic values and marks that informed the private lives of that gentry. Sweeping declarations of liberal and conservative or left and right fall aside when the Freemasonry and its values are taken into account. The secrecy surrounding the practices of the lodges, however, leaves a vacuum too easily filled by suppositions that don’t quite fit.

  • Bill_Perdue

    It’s election season and Democrats and their Republican cousins are going to promise you whatever you want, but they won’t deliver. They never do.

    “A new scientific study from Princeton researcher Martin Gilens and Northwestern

    researcher Benjamin I. Page has finally put some science behind the recently popular argument that the United States isn’t a democracy any more. And they’ve found that in fact, America is basically an oligarchy.

    For their study, Gilens and Page compiled data from roughly 1,800 different policy

    initiatives in the years between 1981 and 2002. They then compared those policy

    changes with the expressed opinion of the United State public. Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found out that the government followed the directives set forth by the latter two much more often. It’s beyond alarming.

    As Gilens and Page write, ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.”

    http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/new_study_finds_the_us_is_not_a_democracy_so_what_is_it_20140417

  • Bill_Perdue

    It’s election season and Democrats and their Republican cousins are going to promise you whatever you want, but they won’t deliver. They never do.

    “A new scientific study from Princeton researcher Martin Gilens and Northwestern
    researcher Benjamin I. Page has finally put some science behind the recently popular argument that the United States isn’t a democracy any more. And they’ve found that in fact, America is basically an oligarchy.

    For their study, Gilens and Page compiled data from roughly 1,800 different policy
    initiatives in the years between 1981 and 2002. They then compared those policy
    changes with the expressed opinion of the United State public. Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found out that the government followed the directives set forth by the latter two much more often. It’s beyond alarming.
    As Gilens and Page write, ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.”

    http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/new_study_finds_the_us_is_not_a_democracy_so_what_is_it_20140417

  • I can’t be the only one revolted by the arguments over what will be in a watered-down ENDA bill that isn’t even going to come up for a vote in the House anyway. If I want to see political theater, I’ll watch House of Cards. I expect the people who represent me to do something, not pretend to do something and then hold it in front of me like a carrot before the next election.

  • I think it’s more fair to say that the conservative Democrats that were common in the party (especially from the south) up through the mid 80s have been replaced by conservative Republicans. It’s not that particular Democrats are more liberal than they were in the 60s and 70s. That’s rather obviously not true. But the average of the party is more liberal because the party does not have many elected conservatives like it once did. The opposite is true of Republicans. At the same time that the Democrats had a conservative wing in the south, the Republicans had a liberal (moderate really) wing in the northeast. The call from party loyalists for ideological “purity” is the root cause of the polarization. Most bills before the 80s-90s were bipartisan because there were people in both parties who had similar views with colleagues across the aisle. That’s hardly ever the case now. And moreover, compromise is seen as a negative even if a significant majority favor the issue being addressed. It’s now more important to score points or hold token votes to use in the next election than it is to do your job. And we allow this nonsense.

  • Bill_Perdue

    I don’t think they ever moved to the left and that includes FDR.

    During the Great Depression they pretended to move left but it was a scam. They made a few minor accommodations (which they’re in the process of wiping out) out of a valid fear that if they hadn’t there would have been a revolution.

    Truman began the Democrats move to the right with his anti-radical (and anti-gay) loyalty oaths, LBJ and Nixon murdered black leaders, Carter began deregulation, costing workers hundreds of thousands of union jobs. Reagan and Bush1 extended it, Bill Clinton championed and signed NAFTA and the deregulation bills of 1999 and 2000, Bush2 gave the rich enormous tax breaks at the expense of workers, who have to foot the bill and Obama spent trillions making up the losses of the rich while ignoring homelessness and unemployment.

    I can’t see any ‘left’ in that history, not in either party.

  • Indigo

    Wait . . . the Democrats have moved to the “left”? Not since Hubert Horatio Humphrey died they haven’t! The DNCC money-machine that operates now is not the party of FDR or anywhere near it. To call themselves “Democrats” is already a mockery of what was once and is no more. That I vote

  • Bill_Perdue

    Compromise is at a standstill because both parties have the same right wing programs, both are dependent on money from the rich and they are fiercely competitive.

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