With the vast majority of Americans disgusted with Washington and polls showing that Congressional approval rates are in the toilet, can we anticipate that the discourse might improve in the future? Can we expect that politicians will take citizens’ displeasure to heart with positive steps to improve the atmosphere in Washington, so that the important business of the nation can be accomplished? Unfortunately, the answers are no and in fact it is more likely that the political climate will deteriorate in the years ahead.
A recent article in Politico by Charles Mahtesian and Jim VandeHei spelled out the reasons why the situation appears so bleak.( http://bit.ly/IkrTZr) Basically, it’s the loss of centrists and moderates on both sides of the aisle with greater polarization in both the Senate and the House. Whereas twenty years ago, 40% of Senate Republicans were considered moderate, barely 10 % can be so-labeled today. In the House, it was 30% twenty years ago and almost none currently. Similarly, moderate Democrats now constitute 12% of the party in the House versus 35% in 1989. Moderate Democrats in the Senate are 15% compared to 27% 20 years ago.
The refusal of Tea Party activists to support any Republican who is not to the extreme right of the political spectrum has resulted in moderate conservatives being shunted aside in Republican primaries or having to retire. And right-wing conservative Super PACs, from outside the contested state or congressional district, with vast sums of money since the Citizens United ruling, have supported the most partisan candidates with attack ads. To make matters worse, the candidates being skewered cannot respond effectively to these ads, as they don’t have the financial resources to mount a defense.
Centrist Democrats have also gone down to defeat or retired, with the liberal wing of the party and organized labor going after incumbents who have not hewed to the party line, particularly in regards to health care. This is particularly true in the House where Jason Altmire and Tim Holden were just defeated in Pennsylvania Democratic primary races. The list of moderate Democrats Senators not running for re-election include Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jim Webb of Virginia.
Republican moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine is also retiring along with moderate conservative Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas. The reasons for all of these retirements include the partisanship in Washington and the inability to legislate effectively. In addition, there’s the fact that campaigning opens up moderate candidates to blistering attack ads, often personal in nature, augmented by Citizens United Super PAC money. As examples of internecine combat in the Republican Party we just have to look at the battles Oren Hatch of Utah and Charles Grassley of Indiana are going through, because these long time conservatives are not deemed conservative enough by extreme elements in their party. Interestingly, Oren Hatch received a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union and the Chamber of Commerce in 2010, but that isn’t considered adequate by the far, far right. Maybe it’s the fact that in the past, they were willing to talk across party lines and were even cordial at times to Democrats.
The loss of moderates in the House and Senate are going to make compromise on any issue more difficult to accomplish, and the atmosphere in Washington is bound to become even more toxic. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the current political climate is the fact that the moderate middle, including independents, moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats, has no bloc to represent their views, despite the fact that they are the largest percentage of voters.
To change the political environment so that government can function again, campaign financing reform, including limitations and transparency on Super PAC donations is necessary, despite the Citizens United ruling. Perhaps it will take a constitutional amendment, but it must happen if American democracy is to prosper. And the way both the Republicans and Democrats have evolved over the past several decades, it is evident that a third party of the center is needed to represent the moderate middle and bring common sense and compromise back to Washington. Neither of these remedies will be easily accomplished, since both current parties and the deep pockets behind them will fight fiercely to keep these prescriptions from being realized.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.