In a piece at The New Republic Walter Shapiro argues that voters are more polarized now that at any other time in American history:
The current level of sustained political balance in Congress is unprecedented.
Since the Civil War, there never have been back-to-back congressional elections in which the margins in both the House and the Senate were this tight. The closest parallel came during the George W. Bush years, when neither party had more than 51 votes in the Senate from 2001 to 2005. But thanks to the Republicans gaining House seats in the 2002 election (largely because of the rally-around-the-flag aftermath of the September 11 attacks), House Speaker Denny Hastert possessed more breathing room than Kevin McCarthy (or whoever arises from the coming GOP chaos) will have in January.
Looking at a map of the United States, Democrats might understandably feel anxious. The small-state bias in the Senate (and, as a result, the Electoral College) prompted Mother Jones’s Ari Berman to calculate that 30 Republican senators hail from 15 states whose population collectively is smaller than California with its two Democratic senators. The 2024 Senate map makes these calculations seem even more daunting with Democrats having to defend such ruby-red states as Montana (Jon Tester), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), and West Virginia (Joe Manchin).
Small wonder that smart political commentators assume that the current status quo will continue ad infinitum. Writing for CNN, Ron Brownstein anticipated that the 2024 presidential race (no matter who is on the ballot) will again come down to Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin. As Brownstein put it, “Each side in an intensely polarized nation of 330 million recognizes that the overall direction of national policy now pivots on the choices of a minuscule number of people living in the tiny patches of contested political ground—white-collar suburbs of Atlanta and Phoenix, working-class Latino neighborhoods in and around Las Vegas and the mid-sized communities of the so-called BOW counties in Wisconsin.”
I don’t think that’s what’s been happening at all. I think that
- Information and technology have made gerrymandering more successful than at any other time in American history.
- The party leadership in both political parties, largely driven by money, have become more extreme.
- Both parties, driven by the extreme politics of their leaderships, are being transformed into programmatic parties—something they’ve never been before.
- The stakes as measured by the power and reach of the federal government are higher than ever before.
The net outcome is that voters have largely retained the views they’ve been holding while the parties are decreasingly representative of those views. As evidence for that I’d submit the decreasing party roll for both parties and the increasing number of those who identify themselves as independents.
I’m not very sanguine about fixing that. There are all sorts of things that might help like increasing the size of the House, divvying up some of the states, reducing the power of the Congressional leadership, and cracking down on gerrymandering. Under a system with representation based on geographical-based districts is it really too much to ask that the districts be geographically based? Here’s the 2022 Illinois Congressional district map:
As should be obvious it’s one gerrymander after the other. Grotesquely so. Adopting the measures above might have the effect of moderating both parties as they actually needed to compete for votes.
But the incentives would remain and the incentives point to large, corrupt, autocratic parties so that’s where we’re headed.