I wasn’t a big fan of PowerPoint presentations until I saw the one Tom Davis uses to depict some depressing trends in American politics.
The presentation puts this month’s party-line Senate vote to end filibusters against Supreme Court nominees into historical perspective. And it shows that the partisanship the vote represented flows from long-term trends that aren’t likely to be reversed.
Davis, who was a seven-term Republican representative from northern Virginia and twice ran the party’s congressional campaign committee, devised an instructive formula for Congress: Take the voting record of the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat and then see how many members’ voting records fall between them. That would identify moderate lawmakers to use as building blocks for bipartisan coalitions.
In the House of Representatives in 1982, 344 members fell into this in-between category. That was 79 percent of the legislators. In 2002, there were 137 moderates, or 31 percent. By 2014, a grand total of three House members were neither strikingly liberal nor strikingly conservative by Davis’ measure.
The widening gap in the House can be partly attributed to factors like gerrymandering to create heavily partisan districts, and by residential patterns that tend to cluster like-minded people in the same communities.
But those factors can’t explain the fact that patterns in the Senate are similar.
In 1982, 58 senators had voting records that fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. In 2002, that number was down to seven. By 2014, there were none.
Davis, now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte LLP, said that today’s divisions have been widened by cable television, where the premium is on the negative and the other guy is a bum, as well as by political social media where conservatives gravitate to right-wing sites and liberals to left-wing ones. The campaign-finance system, freed from legal spending restraints that existed in the past, is also a factor. There is little prospect for changing any of these.
Cultural change, driven partly by economics but also significantly by education, matters too. Hillary Clinton carried all 17 states (and Washington, D.C.) where there is a higher percentage of voters with advanced degrees than the national average of 10.3 percent. President Trump took all of the other 33 except for Nevada, Hawaii and half of Maine.
Alienation and anger have also fed polarization. Turnout was down in 2016 from four years earlier, and down a full 10 percent from 2008, when President Obama was first elected. Voters in 2016 told pollsters they thought Clinton was superior to Trump in judgment, experience and caring “about people like me.” But Trump was considered the more likely agent of change, and change won.
The anger this reflects shows no signs of abating.
“Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom,” Davis said. “We haven’t yet.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.