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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