The news of Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s decision not to seek re-election confirms something that has been going on for a long time: Congress is being taken over by extremes in both parties leaving little room for centrists. This has the very unhappy consequence that very little will ever get done given the Senate’s rules requiring 60 votes to move on any non-budget related matter.
Ironically enough, this increasing polarization first became fully evident on a November night in 1980 when Bayh’s father, longtime Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, was defeated. That night, a string of Democratic senators went down to defeat including some truly great public servants such as John Culver, Frank Church, Alan Cranston and George McGovern. The upheaval was partly the result of Ronald Reagan’s coattails, but more so, it reflected an increasingly active, and ideologically driven, conservative political movement built largely on the backs of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics. Reagan’s winning personality kept the hard edges mostly soft during his eight year reign but his successor George H.S. Bush, seen as a suspicious moderate by GOP conservatives, played to the base consistently, hiring Lee Atwater to develop the message of his 1988 campaign. Atwater introduced the nation to Willie Horton and indulged in a kind of politics that he later came to regret but which had, by the time of his regrets, led to a new kind of GOP politics. Democrats responded in turn, becoming more and more decidedly liberal. That is the one paragraph history of how our politics became so polarized that men like Bayh have decided to call it quits.
The other culprit has been redistricting, in which incumbent politicians connive with each other to create carefully drawn districts that are not competitive. Most reliable Democrats are squeezed into one district and reliable Republicans are squeezed into an adjoining district. The result is that members of the House are far more likely to face a primary challenge if they are too moderate than a credible opponent in the general election. This primarily affects the House, but indirectly affects the Senate: Most senators get their start in the House, and the ones who come to the Senate from being governors or attorneys general are told that this is the way things work in DC.
If there is one change I could make in our nation’s political system it would be to find a better way to conduct redistricting. It robs democracy of its vigor which resides in contested elections and it forces incumbents to play to the extremes in their base, rather than to the center where most Americans locate their opinions. Redistricting reform is also finally something that is in the self-interest of incumbents: As more and more Americans consider themselves Independent or unaffiliated voters, they are likely to voice their discontent by voting for the challenger no matter which party he or she represents. Having to govern from the center will put a premium on effective legislative work, on compromise, on getting past ideological divisions. It would be good for both parties and it would be good for America.