The Disappearing Middle Ground in US Politics

— by Bryan Schwartzman

A rare, borderline miraculous thing happened inside Congregation Rodeph Shalom: a Republican and a Democrat not only jointly identified a political problem, but also agreed upon a set of solutions. Perhaps the true miracle would be if any of their ideas are ever adopted by Congress.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Virginia) and Martin Frost (D-Texas) — former political adversaries — are co-authors of the recently released work The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis. The two former pols addressed an audience of roughly 50 people at the synagogue in a November 8 program sponsored by JSPAN. (A number of organizations and synagogues served as community partners in promoting the event.)

They presented a compelling case that the two parties are being driven further and further apart. Today’s high levels of partisanship, they argued, make it exceedingly difficult for Congress to complete its routine work — such as raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget — let alone reach meaningful compromise on pressing issues such as immigration reform. Hinted at, but never stated outright, was the fear that — if left unchecked — partisanship might threaten to tear the fabric of constitutional democracy.

In his introduction of the speaker, author and historian Dwight David Eisenhower II – grandson of President Eisenhower and son-in-law of President Nixon – called it “the number one constitutional and political issue facing our country today. Call it political dysfunction, call it hyperpartisianship, call it the breakdown of Congress.”

middle_ground_imageThe program was the first part of a two part series called “American Democracy Challenged.” On November 22, JSPAN is hosting another program at Rodeph Shalom focusing on gerrymandering. Speakers will include State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Upper Merion). The Philadelphia event came a week into the Speakership of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who is attempting to bring order to an unruly Republican caucus, and in the midst of an unruly presidential campaign that is defying expectations.

In his presentation, Davis attributed polarization and gridlock to three factors that have largely emerged over the past two decades: unfair redistricting, polarized media and out-of-control political financing.

“Although we have many philosophical differences, in terms of analyzing what went wrong, we share many of the same observations,” said Davis, referring to himself and Frost. “Basically, the middle has gone away.”

Davis, who served in Congress from 1994 to 2008, noted that in most congressional districts, “basically the only election that counts is the primary. The primary is what the members orient their time, rhetoric and voting records to. Primary voters represent an overly narrow slice of the electoral pie. They don’t reward compromise. They tend to punish it.”

Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District

Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district.

Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee between 1998 and 2002, argued that increasingly sophisticated data analytics have allowed state legislatures to make districts safer and less competitive than ever before. He cited Pennsylvania’s meandering 7th congressional district — held by Republican Pat Meehan — as an egregious example of a gerrymandered district. Davis also took aim at a popular target, partisan broadcast media and websites, claiming they proliferate a culture in which talking to the opposition is virtually unheard of. Then there is the series of events, from the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill in 2002 to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, that has allowed wealthy individuals, unions and privately held corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to fund outside groups unconnected to candidates or political parties.

“The point in all this is that voters behave as if it were a parliamentary system, which it is not,” Davis said. “Instead of being the minority party, you are now the opposition party.”

Frost – only the second Jewish congressman in the history of the Lone Star State — presented a series of recommendations that the two have put forth in their book. Chief among them is the idea that Congress might mandate that non-partisan commissions, rather than state legislatures, control the congressional redistricting process. The goal would be to increase the number of competitive races and force candidates to pay attention to centrist voters who value pragmatism and compromise.

“We have a system now, where 80 percent of congressional districts are safe districts,” Frost said.

He also suggested several changes to current campaign finance laws that would require all groups that are spending money on elections to report that spending to the Federal Election Commission. He also suggested that all congressional primaries nationwide be held on the same date, to increase interest in House races and voter turnout. A higher turnout, Frost argued, would curb the influence of fringe groups.

heaven_sakeFollowing the formal presentation, the two former congressmen took a series of pointed questions from the audience. This reporter pointed out that, in the years following World War II, the parties were not necessarily aligned on ideological grounds and it was in fact a bipartisan alliance that for years blocked any advancement on the civil rights agenda. Is it such a bad thing for voters to know what parties stand for and base their vote upon it?

“There is nothing wrong with good, solid parties,” responded Davis:

The real problem today is that the fastest growing group of any electorate is independents. In some states, they are prohibited from participating in primaries, which is the only election that counts. The reality is, you have a system where independent voters are excluded from the process. It de-centers American politics.

In his response, Frost cited Master Of The Senate, the third volume in Robert Caro’s series about Lyndon Johnson. The book describes in great detail how LBJ, as Senate majority leader, wheeled and dealt with members of both parties to pass the first Federal Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction. In the end, he managed to garner more Republican votes than Democratic votes.

“If Lyndon Johnson were in power today, could he do that?” said Frost. “Even as capable as he was, the answer is probably no, because the parties would not cooperate — even on something as important as civil rights.”

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  1. says

    For Heaven’s Sake

    As I listened to former Representatives Tom Davis and Martin Frost speak on the topic of their new book, The Partisan Divide, Congress in Crisis, I thought of a teaching from the Jewish tradition. It appears in a section of the Mishnah known as Pirkei Avot, the Lessons of the Ancestors. “Disputes for the sake of heaven will yield meaningful results; but disputes that are not for the sake of heaven eventually destroy themselves.”

    What makes a dispute “for the sake of heaven” or not? According to the rabbis, a dispute for the sake of heaven is one in which both parties are seeking truth, listen to each other with open minds, and have respect for each other’s opinions. The opposite is a controversy based on rigidity and demagoguery, wherein one seeks to win, score points, and defeat an opponent, without regard to the negative impact on society.

    Davis and Frost were passionate in characterizing the current state of polarization in Congress, and in society at large, as one in which making a point and defeating one’s “enemy” are more important than listening, compromising and getting things done for the country. They lay blame for the polarization of American political life on gerrymandering, partisan cable news channels, and the ability of undisclosed donors to give unlimited funding to advance a narrow position.

    They demonstrated how these trends undermine the very functioning of government, and transform those who disagree with us into enemies. These are disputes “not for the sake of heaven.” They are corrosive to society and its civility.

    The rabbis say that the schools of the ancient sages Hillel and Shammai were examples of those who argued for the sake of heaven. In the end, the rabbis would have to decide whether to follow one school’s position or the other’s. But they caution that “both positions could be the word of the Living God.”

    We would do well to keep the teachings of Hillel and Shammai in mind. Governing requires vigorous debate, and eventually a deciding vote. But we are all the better when decisions are arrived at respectfully, and when the process inspires confidence that both the majority and minority are guided not by their own self-interest, but by the welfare of the nation.

    Our program on November 22 will follow-up on these themes, particularly on gerrymandering and funding. State Senators Daylin Leach (D) and Mike Folmer (R) will address gerrymandering and redistricting, and journalists Dick Polman and Chris Satullo will address campaign finance.

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