Everybody’s heard about political extremism in Congress. It’s the idea that our representatives are so partisan, their views so extreme that they never accomplish anything except when they absolutely have to.
Why has the legislative branch come to such a pass? It comes down to old-fashioned, practical politics—at least according to former Texas Congressman Martin Frost. In his presentation “The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis” at the Humphrey Forum at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance on April 5, 2016, Frost identified three reasons why Congress has grown so divided:
- Redistricting outcomes
- New media models
- Campaign financing reform
Each of these causes has been advanced in other forums as the basis for America’s political gridlock. What makes Frost’s and co-author Tom Davis’ analysis unique is that each originated as a solution to address serious political concerns. Redistricting was intended to provide minorities with “safe” election districts for their voices and issues to be heard in Congress. Technological developments in media such as cable television and the Internet were supposed to provide unlimited access to news and information to create a knowledgeable electorate. And campaign financing reform was designed to eliminate the influence of non-federal or “soft money” on federal elections.
The upshot of these developments obeyed the law of unintended consequences. Creating safe election districts caused minority populations to be underrepresented in most elections. New communication technologies opened a fire hose of information, much of it biased and unreliable, which overwhelmed the voting public. Eliminating soft money removed the funding that enabled parties to inform voters and establish the machinery that enabled their voices to be heard.
These results drove opinion “to the fringes” of the political spectrum. Where so-called moderates once numbered over 300 in the House of Representatives, by 2014 their number had dwindled to three. The Senate was even worse—not a single moderate held office in 2014. Rather than shift their appeal during elections toward the center of the political spectrum to win votes from the opposition, candidates feared potential takeovers from extremists within their own party for appearing bi-partisan.
In the discussion that followed, Frost and former Minnesota Congressman Tim Penny, identified several solutions to the problem of partisanship, particularly in regards to transparency of the political process. Increased financial disclosure, the restoration of political debate, modification of the earmark process, and objective, seasoned journalistic opinion would help. But successful politics is a zero sum game which does not always include adhering to a set of ideal values or promoting the perfect candidate. As Frost recalled of his time as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, your primary directive is “to find people you think can win.” In the current climate of political extremism, that may result in candidates which no one endorses wholeheartedly.