The death of the political middle
The Founding Fathers designed Congress to represent the will of the majority of Americans.
Yet, even as more Americans identify themselves as independents — not Democrats or Republicans — there is a painfully sharp decline in moderate and independent voices in both houses of Congress. It is also true that everywhere but Capitol Hill more people are moving away from conservative or liberal labels in favor of calling themselves moderates.
The death of the political middle is the defining shift taking place in American politics today. It is ending the tradition of political leadership that rises above ideology, region, party, religion and even race to attain statesmanship. And it is weakening the two-party system.
Here are the numbers:
According to a Pew Poll from last month, 26 percent of Americans identify as Republican, 32 percent say they are Democrats and a plurality of 36 percent call themselves independents. A January 2012 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans self-identify as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal.
Yet even as more citizens go to the middle, the politicians are marching to the political extremes. According to an analysis of congressional voting records by Professor Keith Poole of the University of Georgia’s Political Science Department, the Republican caucuses in Congress have become dramatically more conservative since the 1960s. At the same time, he says, the Democratic caucuses have remained largely unchanged in their moderate, left-of-center leanings. His comprehensive research is available online at www.voteview.com.
Now, with the retirement of Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe after 33 years of service in Congress, the GOP caucus will become more conservative still. Moderates will have even less of a voice in the halls of Congress.
For last year, VoteView ranked Snowe as the most moderate Republican senator. This ranking mirrors that of National Journal’s congressional scorecard last year, which gave Snowe a composite liberal score of 45 out of 100 and a composite conservative score of 55 out of 100. Both VoteView and the National Journal also ranked Nebraska’s Ben Nelson as the most moderate Democrat senator. Nelson announced his retirement earlier this year.
In an interview after her announcement, Snowe cited “the frustrations that exist with the political system here in Washington, where it’s dysfunctional, and the political paralysis has overtaken the environment to the detriment of the good of this country.
“I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term,” she added.
Perhaps the best example of the paralysis of which Snowe speaks is the record use of the filibuster by Senate Republicans. A supermajority of 60 votes is now required to pass any legislation in the upper chamber because of GOP obstructionist tactics. It used to be a simple majority of 51 votes.
The short-term political implication of Snowe’s retirement is that Democrats are now very likely to win her seat and retain control of the Senate in 2012.
Snowe and Nelson are not alone. The Congress has become an increasingly uncomfortable place for voices of moderation. Many of them are fed up and have decided that 2012 is the year they will call it quits.
Long-time moderate California Republicans like Reps. David Dreier, Wally Herger and Elton Gallegly have announced their retirement from the House. They are joined by conservative Blue Dog Democrats like North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler and Oklahoma’s Dan Boren.
Along with Snowe and Nelson, the Senate will be losing one of its most influential moderate voices with the retirement of Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Recall that Lieberman won his last re-election in 2006 not as a Democrat, but as an independent because he was defeated in the Democratic primary by a more liberal challenger. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president, was harshly criticized by Democrats for crossing party lines in 2008 to support his long-time friend Republican John McCain (Ariz.) for president.
Yet after all that, 2012 is the year he has decided that he has had enough.
When Ronald Reagan was asked about his switch from being a Democrat to a Republican partisan in the 1960s, he would respond by saying: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Party left me.”
There are a lot of moderate Republicans and Democrats around Washington saying the same thing these days.
The defeat of moderate Republicans in the 2010 Republican primaries by conservative insurgents further discouraged the voices of moderation.
Progressives often complain about a “false equivalency” — when the blame for the polarization in politics is distributed equally to both parties. In their view, progressives do not exert nearly as much pressure on the Democrats to be liberal as conservatives do to make the GOP more right wing. There is some truth to that. Conservatives are better and more organized in enforcing what Grover Norquist calls “quality control” on Republican politics. However, the Left has tried to do the same thing and would be doing it more often if they could.
Because of the exodus — if not expulsion — of the remaining moderates from Congress this year, American politics will become even more polarized and dysfunctional. If you like the ideological extremism and obstructionist paralysis that has characterized the 112th Congress, then you will love the 113th.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel. The column originally appeared on TheHill.com.