A Widening Gulf in Washington

Political Science faculty member explains factors in growing polarization

New U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler— the first graduate of Penn State Behrend to serve in Congress—isn’t afraid of a fight. As a member of the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he prosecuted more than 100 terrorists during the Iraq War.

The halls of Congress won’t be much friendlier. With the legislature divided— Republicans control the Senate, but Democrats hold a majority in the House—the ideological gulf is widening. Reschenthaler arrived at the Capitol with an 82 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union Foundation, based on his voting record in the Pennsylvania State Senate. For him, a move to the center would be a political risk, said Dr. Robert Speel, an associate professor of political science.

“There have always been divisions between conservatives and liberals in Washington,” Speel said, “but the divide now might be the strongest since the Civil War. Fifty years ago, or even thirty years ago, there were still a lot of moderates in the delegations, and they were instrumental in getting laws passed. Today, the moderates have all but disappeared, at least in Washington.”

Three factors have pushed the parties farther apart, Speel said:

Primary elections reward the most partisan candidates.

“Voter turnout tends to be low in primary elections,” Speel said. “The voters who do turn out generally represent the most committed wing of the party, and they usually support the most liberal, or most conservative, candidate.

“Primaries weren’t always the route to the nomination,” Speel said. “Before the 1970s, presidential nominees were selected in smoke-filled rooms at the conventions. Party leaders got together to decide who would be the strongest candidate in the general election and they tended to choose moderates.

“In 1968, the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, even though he hadn’t competed in the primaries. When Humphrey lost to Nixon, the Democrats committed to using the primaries to select their next nominee. It didn’t help them. In 1972, using that process, they nominated George McGovern.”

Gerrymandering has made House elections less competitive.

“The boundaries of congressional districts are drawn to favor the party that is in power,” Speel said. “Very few districts are still a toss-up, so elections increasingly are decided in the primaries, where conservatives choose the Republican candidate and liberals choose the Democrat. There is no room in that for moderates.

“There are ways to change that, however,” he said. “Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s congressional districting map violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. When the legislature failed to draw up a new map that was fairer to both parties, the court did it for them.

“Arizona has a nonpartisan commission that draws up house districts, and the candidates who are elected there often are more moderate. In California, a bipartisan commission draws the congressional boundaries. In November, seven of that state’s congressional seats switched parties.”

Voters rarely punish overly partisan incumbents.

“We’ve always had partisanship and ideologues in Congress,” Speel said, “but, in the past, there also was an understanding that certain lines should not be crossed. Lawmakers wanted to be respected, whether they were in or out of power.

“That eroded in the 1990s, with the rise of Newt Gingrich, who seemed to revel in partisan combat. Before then, the Senate at least maintained the pretense of rising above politics. Today, the people we send to Washington don’t see a political gain in compromising. They’re actually afraid the party base will attack them if they reach across the aisle.

“The problem, again, is that the type of voters who say they want compromise are the least likely to vote,” Speel said. “Those voters in the middle need to stop sitting on the sidelines and saying, ‘I don’t like anyone in Washington.’ They need to go to the polls and vote. If they don’t, the polarization of the parties is only going to continue.”