Deserting the Middle Ground

The political middle in Congress is heading for extinction and no one can pinpoint exactly why. Redistricting may play a factor, but population and political shifts may be bigger factors. Photo Credit: Washington PostThe ideological middle in Congress is an endangered species. And, contrary to popular belief, it may not be the fault of politicians.

Many have speculated that congressional redistricting, which occurs every 10 years, is a major culprit. As the theory goes, districts are made politically safer for incumbents, which means they cater more to the majority and neglect the minority.

However, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post says data may not support that theory. He cites the work of a trio of political science professors who wrote a paper titled, "Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?" Their answer is "no."

"Despite the increased ingenuity and sophistication of gerrymanders, numerous constraints and obstacles impede using redistricting as an 'incumbency protection' plan," they said. "The requirements of equal population, compactness, and contiguity reduce the scope of such manipulation. Because many states have relatively few districts, gerrymanders often lack the flexibility to created distorted districting plans."

Gerrymandering might even have the opposite effect, they added, because scheming politicos may try to extend their political advantage to other districts by thinning the partisan political soup in so-called safe districts.

Their best proof of their counter-theory is the decline of middle-road members of the U.S. Senate, which is not affected by redistricting.

So if we can't blame politicians, who can we blame? Cillizzo says the fault may lie with us.

More and more Americans choose to live in areas with like-minded people. For example, if you are a young professional with liberal perspectives on social issues, you may choose to find work in Seattle or Portland rather than Phoenix or Dallas. Cillizzo calls this self-sorting, which is resulting in more political monocultures — liberal ones in cities, conservative ones in more rural areas.

Another factor is the increased regionalization of red and blue states. Where once we fretted over an urban-rural divide (which still exists), now we see a major shift in political allegiance that resembles the Mason-Dixon Line. The South has flipped from Democratic to Republican. It doesn't take a high-powered political microscope to determine why. All it takes is a calendar, dating back to when Southern Dixiecrats yielded to pressure from Lyndon Johnson to vote for the Civil Rights Act.

Cillizzo says yet another factor is the incessant , uncompromising pressure by political parties — and increasingly special interest or splinter groups — to pass varying litmus tests. The Tea Party holds Republican feet to their fire on government spending and a visceral hatred of Obamacare. Organized labor, including public employee unions, do the same to Democrats on issues such as the minimum wage. Throw in super-PACs that spend enormous sums to push their often narrow political agendas and you have the ingredients for partisan division.

As a result, Cillizzo says, Republicans and Democrats differ on almost every major domestic issue — and the trend is spreading to foreign policy, traditionally an area of bilateral consensus.

There may be no single factor that "killed the ideological middle in Congress," according to Cillizzo. "It died a death of 1,000 cuts. But that doesn't change the fact that it's dead — and with little hope of being revived, at least any time soon."