Sixteen years ago this month I got involved with politics and the Democratic Party. Politics were pretty different then. Republican moderates held more urban seats, and Blue Dog Democrats held rural seats. George W. Bush was reaching out to Latino voters as best he could, and his electoral results showed that it was helpful. Democrats were still competing in Missouri and in the parts of Western Pennsylvania not calling themselves “Pittsburgh.” Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson worked with Democratic President Bill Clinton, while Democratic Senator John Breaux worked with Republican President George W. Bush. I guess I’ve now been involved long enough by age 35 to opine for the old days.
None of that stuff is remotely relevant in 2018. There was no Alan Simpson for Barack Obama, and there sure as hell isn’t a John Breaux for Donald Trump. Frankly, that kind of bi-partisanship gets you primaried out of office in 2018. The interest groups basically run the two parties, which has forced most elected officials into their ideological corners. Gerrymandering and outside money force ideological conformity that didn’t even exist fifteen years ago. Bi-partisanship is essentially dead, not that the era of Donald Trump is really making anyone long for it anyway. Trump’s existence is to troll his opponents, and some of his supporters even will tell you they don’t care if he got Russian help- at least he stopped Hillary. I think most Democrats would tell you we don’t care how we beat him in 2020 either, it’s a moral imperative at this point.
More than anything though, the changes in our politics are about sorting. Democrats have lost almost all of their rural seats in Congress, besides those that are majority-minority, and are essentially an urbanized party now. Save for a few urban enclaves like Staten Island, the Republican Party doesn’t exist at all in urban America. Congressional elections are decided in suburbia now, but neither party’s messaging really reaches them- because most Congressmen represent gerrymandered, base districts, and fear primaries. These voters often find themselves disgusted and disinterested in politics, and end up just voting against one side of the other. The overwhelming majority of districts are decided ahead of time, the other districts are full of disgusted voters, and we wonder why Congress can’t get much done? We used to think we all had the same goals, and different routes there. That’s just not true anymore. The America each side wants is no longer the America the other side wants.
From a political standpoint, we can work around this- the majority rules. Whoever wins the election does what they want and governs for their side. Of course, this constantly leaves the minority party’s voters discontent with America. It leads to fluctuations in policy as Congress and the Presidency go back-and-forth like a yo-yo. A Democratic government passes a comprehensive health care bill in the ACA, and the succeeding Republican Congress and President do everything they can to sabotage that bill. A functional, consistent government that works is nobody’s goal. Achieving ideological victory is the motivator for Congress.
America’s great achievements- the interstate highway system, landing on the moon, Civil Rights legislation, and others- were bi-partisan, collective victories. That seems like pie-in-the-sky now. While I think both sides have become very ideological, I have to say I don’t assign equal blame- today’s Republicans literally questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship, and generally treat Democrats, particularly minorities, as lesser or non-citizens, and question their patriotism. In this kind of environment, things don’t get done. Infrastructure crumbles. Thirty or forty million people don’t get health care. Our students fall to the middle of the pack in education outcomes. A broken immigration system doesn’t get fixed. Our children get mowed down by madmen with machine guns. Common-sense energy policy that protects our environment can’t get passed. Just partisan fixes that favor major funders of the majority party can pass. Problems can’t get solved.
Our constitutional system was not drawn up to deal with a country literally divided along identity lines. Racial, gender, urban vs. rural, education, and other divisions have created a country where we don’t have shared goals. Globalism has moved so many of the good jobs to population clusters, or big cities. Self-sorting among the people has made a situation where most of the Democrats are in the big cities, and most of the Republicans live in exurban or rural areas. Our federal system, particularly the electoral college and Congressional re-districting, gives one side an advantage on the other. In twenty years, half the country will live in eight states. We are heading towards a divided society not unlike those in third world countries, or at the worst case scenario, apartheid-era South Africa. If we continue on this path, Donald Trump may end up being the calm before the actual storm.