Big Sort

Thirty Years and Three Reasons Congress Imploded

When leaders of the House looked around for a consensus to confront what they were convinced was a national emergency, consensus had left the room.

There are plenty of stories about yesterday’s tactical failings. But Monday’s partisan collapse was also a product of at least three changes that have been taking place quietly for the past 30 years. All were underlying reasons for yesterday’s disarray.

Reason No. 1: The Middle Has Gone Missing
Here’s a chart compiled from vote tallies in Congress collected by political scientist Keith Poole (and others; here’s their site ). You can see that a sizable portion of Congress fell into the ideological middle from the end of World War II until sometime in the mid- to late-1970s. Then those who fell into the category of “moderate” began disappearing.

By 2005, only a smidgen of Congress could be described as moderate. By the time of the 110th Congress, Poole writes, “There is no overlap of the two political parties. They are completely separated ideologically.”

In Congress, the time from 1948 until the late ‘60s “was the most bi-partisan period in the history of the modern Congress,” according to a recent paper . Lots of moderates produced lots of bipartisanship. When House leaders over the weekend went looking for a middle place where they could build a bipartisan bill, there wasn’t any middle to be found. There hadn’t been a middle of any appreciable size for nearly 20 years.

Reason No. 2: Congressional Districts Have Grown Lopsided
Members of the House increasingly come from districts where one party or the other has an overwhelming advantage. Members of Congress don’t have to be moderate because their constituency is overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic.

(Most journalists are convinced that gerrymandering is the prime cause of growing House district partisanship. It isn’t. The evidence is pretty thick that districts are growing more lopsided because Americans are choosing to live among like-minded others, not because of legislative monkey business. Check out Alan Abramowitz’s paper here . Keiko Ono comes to the same conclusion here . So does Bruce Oppenheimer at Vanderbilt, but there’s no immediate link.)

Congressional districts have grown more partisan because of how Americans are moving and settling—because of the big sort . Many Americans now live in like-minded communities so isolated that they have little understanding (or sympathy) for those people and places with different opinions. Americans have become like the people of Babel, wrote congressional scholar Nelson Polsby. We live in the same place, but we speak different tongues. The trouble is, Polsby observed, “to undertake great public works it helps if everyone speaks the same language.”

Members don’t speak a common language because they represent communities that have been moving apart for the past three decades.

Reason No. 3: They Don’t Live Here Anymore
Members of Congress used to live in the District of Columbia. They’d bring their spouses, and their kids would go to local schools. There was life outside the Capitol. Members would get together on weekends. They would meet at school plays, have drinks after work, eat breakfast on the weekends. Republican leader Robert Michel and Democrat Dan Rostenkowski would share a car on the drive back and forth between D.C. and Illinois.

Members don’t live in Washington anymore. They fly in on Monday or Tuesday and are back in their districts as soon as the week’s business is done. Now “the interaction that occurred over many decades between members, after hours … and on weekends and with their spouses, simply does not occur anymore,” said former Republican House member Vin Weber.

Members don’t live in D.C. anymore because they are afraid to, and have been since at least 1990.

Rick Santorum, a young Pennsylvania conservative, ran against a seven-term incumbent that year. Santorum was losing to Doug Walgren until he started running a television commercial about the “strange” house the incumbent owned in Northern Virginia. It was “strange” because it wasn’t in his district back in Pittsburgh but in “the wealthiest area of Virginia.”

When Santorum unseated Walgren, the social life of Washington, D.C., changed. “Now you don’t move your family to Washington,” Weber told a conference at Princeton. “Now you live in sort of a dormitory with members of your own party.” (After midterm losses in 2006, the homes of former Republican House members went up for sale at 129, 131, 132, 135, and 137 D St. Southeast. Talk about sorting!) The social glue created over coffee while sharing a Sunday newspaper is missing.

Congress works best when members have mixed relationships. If a person is simply an ideological opponent, it’s easy to turn him into the enemy. But if your kids are in the same school play, that opponent is also a friend. Legislatures work most smoothly if they are slathered with some social grease.

Among some African peoples, it was against custom to marry within the tribe. Anthropologist Max Gluckman wrote about how these intertribe marriages created “cross-cutting” relationships among people. The marriage rules forced different tribes to interact, to know one another. Those mixed social ties reduced the chance of misunderstanding or war. The saying was, “They are our enemies; we marry them.”

The simple need for mixed social relations is lost to Americans, who increasingly live in homogenous communities and attend like-minded churches.

It’s apparently lost to Congress, too. We’re living with the result.