President Obama says, “The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.”
But it’s what we got. Why? How did we get to this point?
One reason is that the nation and our political parties are ideologically divided today. In the middle of the last century both political parties were coalitions of differing factions, some conservative and some liberal. The Republican Party included farm state rock-ribbed conservatives, typified by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and then Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, and northeastern fiscally conservative, socially liberal leaders like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The Democratic Party had even more factions: southern conservatives from the one-party South, northern liberals, urban ethnics, and minorities.
Governing consisted of putting together, on particular issues, temporary coalitions of factions from both parties. For example, civil rights legislation in the 1960s passed because northeastern socially liberal Republicans voted with northern Democrats.
The political dynamics began to change when white southerners abandoned the Democratic Party after the party pushed for laws ending segregation. The result was the creation of an increasingly conservative Republican Party strong in the South and in the middle of the country and a more liberal Democratic Party popular on both coasts and in big cities. The geographic divisions only exacerbate the ideological differences.
Both parties came to reflect one ideology, and the need to play to their base in primaries has pushed them – especially the Republican Party – further to the right and left. Today, the most liberal Republican in Congress is more conservative than all the Democrats, and the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than any Republican.
Another problem is that members of Congress spend as little time in Washington as possible. Air travel makes it easy for all members to return to their districts as often as possible to engage in constant campaigning as they visit with the politically active at home.
Members are in Washington only from Tuesday to Thursday in the weeks when they are in session. Some have taken to sleeping in their offices or renting rooms as they leave their families at home. There is little socializing and interaction among members.
Republican and Democratic House leaders used to gather in the Speaker’s office for drinks, Senators in the Majority Leader’s office. Because members lived in Washington, they used to socialize with one another, have dinner at each other’s houses.
Intimate contact of this kind lead to friendships, which in turn lead to cooperation and compromise. Of course, one can carry this only so far. In the 1850s, the mood in a Congress angrily divided over slavery was more vitriolic than today. Members carried guns on the floor. Blows were struck more than once, the most notorious incident being the beating Rep. Preston Brooks inflicted on Sen. Charles Sumner.
The 1850s were of course the prelude to the Civil War.