Death of the political center

Former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) witnessed an increasing paralysis and lack of civility in Congress during his quarter-century career in the House.

A “tremendous” contributor to this decline in camaraderie, said the recently retired lawmaker and current partner at K&L Gates, is the significant decrease in political centrists.


“You don’t have facilitators any longer,” he lamented.

Gordon has identified what he sees as a troubling trend in Congress: a steep downturn over the last 40 years in the number of lawmakers identified as centrist.

According to James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, around 30 percent of lawmakers in the 1970s were considered centrist, based on their voting records.

Today, that number has plummeted to between 5 and 8 percent of members of Congress.

“There’s been a migration of people from the middle to the wings,” Thurber said. “One of the structural problems of our democracy right now — and one of the reasons we have deadlock — is that we’ve got a bimodal distribution of ideology and nobody in the middle.”

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, noticed a particularly sharp decline in centrists during the 2010 election.

“The center was certainly going down in numbers before then, but the 2010 election seriously accelerated the process,” he said. “The most obvious example of that is about half of the Blue Dog Democrats are gone, either by retirement or by defeat.”

The beginning of the decline of political centrists can be traced back to the early 1980s, Loomis said.

That’s when congressional caucuses started behaving more like teams and party leaders began wielding greater clout in terms of who received committee assignments and moved legislation. As parties gained strength, debate became more partisan, fueled by people on the left and right.

Thurber postulated that one-third of the Republicans now in the Senate are “Newt Gingrich Republicans.” These lawmakers began in the House, taking a cue from the former House Speaker from Georgia by attacking the other party and using wedge issues to stall and win the next elections.

“This isn’t the way Congress has traditionally operated … Honestly, I see less willingness to engage, to talk seriously, than I’ve ever seen,” added Loomis, who has studied Congress for nearly 40 years. “It makes [Bill] Clinton and Gingrich look like good buddies relative to the kind of broad unwillingness to engage.”

Political redistricting has also played a significant role in centrist decline in Congress, experts said. Political parties draw district lines themselves in the majority of states; only 13 states currently use nonpartisan commissions.

“Instead of the lines being drawn to make sure that you have somebody elected who is knowledgeable about the district, the lines are being drawn in order to ensure that somebody of your party gets elected,” said former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a vice president with the Aspen Institute.

“The more that you skew the district boundaries or limit the number of people who are choosing who will be on the ballot in November, the more you will drive the parties or elected officials toward the extremes,” he added.

Redistricting has also placed greater weight on political primaries as opposed to general elections. Only about 70 members of Congress are in anything close to a swing district, said Gordon, so the real fight — where the extremes of both parties are most active — is there.

“The primary, where there’s low turnout, is the real election,” Thurber said. “And when there’s low turnout, who turns out? The activists, who do not reflect the wider views, in my opinion, of that district.”

When asked if that results in the election of lawmakers with extreme political ideologies, versus the election of political centrists, the answer, according to experts, is both.

This results in an ideological makeup of Congress increasingly at odds with that of the American populace. According to Thurber, the nation is mainly in the middle ideologically, even when controlling for the more conservative South.

“I think right now less moderate people are being elected,” Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) weighed in. “There’s been much more of an increase of those that are very far right or very far left.”

A contributing factor to this trend, according to the congresswoman, is modern media.

“I think part of the problem really has been the 24 [hour] news cycle, that really started during the Gulf War when they just had to have the constant stream of media coverage,” she said. “To get your message out, you had to scream louder to get attention … I don’t think that exactly lends itself to moderate debate.”

In addition to targeting members of both extremes for sound bites, the media’s demand for transparency also hinders the political process, Edwards said.

“The more everything is done in a public spotlight, the more it becomes difficult to yield on a point,” he said of the constant barrage of cameras and reporters. “It’s a lot harder to compromise … and compromise is seen as a bad thing to do.”

This lack of compromise has proven to be an increasingly worrisome problem.

“These days, the parties are so far apart, they rarely talk to each other informally,” Thurber said.

According to Loomis, “even if people want to make deals … they are constrained.

“When you have people willing to let the U.S. go into default and not worry about it, essentially, that’s pretty staggering,” he said, adding that compromise is not just prudent, but necessary.

“In our system, we’ve got a House and Senate, plus a president; it’s hard to get things done,” Loomis said. “The Framers made it intentionally difficult. So if there isn’t some level of compromise, some level of deliberation, it’s all the more difficult.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has witnessed a Senate “more polarized than in the past along partisan lines,” sees “small but encouraging” signs of progress. These include the Gang of Six and the formation of a larger group to support a bipartisan debt-reduction plan.

“In order to get things done, and regain the confidence of the American people, we are going to have to revive the ‘vital center’ in Congress,” he wrote in an email to The Hill.

But if the 2010 election is any indicator, experts are not hopeful about the return of centrists.

“I don’t know of any congressional scholars right now who are very optimistic about this,” Loomis said. “There’s nothing right now on the horizon that would suggest there’s going to be a resurgence of moderates.

“There might have to be some immense failure, like a debt crisis, before people would even begin to agree that they really need to address big issues,” he said.

For former Rep. Edwards, the decline of centrists in Congress means one thing.

“We’re a democracy,” he warned. “If you don’t compromise, you can’t get anything done.”