How America’s Polarized Politics Produced Democrats’ Internal Fight
Structural forces have increasingly empowered the ideological wings of both parties, while weakening the political center
The feud over President Biden’s domestic spending plans feels familiar to Washington veterans. PHOTO: ROD LAMKEY/ZUMA PRESS
Oct. 4, 2021 10:09 am ET
As Democratic progressives and moderates feud over President Biden’s domestic spending plans, Washington veterans may have a vague feeling they’ve seen this movie before.
Well, they have—or at least an earlier version of it.
That earlier movie premiered eight years ago, when Republicans tore themselves apart in a bitter internal fight that resulted in a politically damaging government shutdown. Then, a band of ideologically driven newer members overwhelmed the party’s more moderate leadership.
Those Republican conservatives were sure the country was with them in their (failed) drive to defund Obamacare, much as Democratic progressives now are convinced that the country is with them in their drive to spend $3.5 trillion on a sprawling jobs, social-welfare and climate-change package.
“This very much reminds me of 2013,” says Doug Heye, who lived through that earlier episode as a top Republican House staff member. “The inter- and intraparty politics are strikingly similar.”
Those parallel political dynamics are no accident. They are, instead, the result of structural forces that have increasingly empowered the ideological wings of both parties, while weakening the political center. Indeed, to really understand the fix Democrats are in, it’s important to appreciate that the polarization in American politics isn’t merely between the two parties, but also within each of them.
Two powerful forces—the ideological stratification of the country and the rise of data-driven gerrymandering of House districts—have come together to produce this dynamic. Increasingly, Americans have sorted themselves into red enclaves and blue enclaves where they live with people who share their cultural and ideological mind-set. Meantime, state legislatures have drawn ever more precise maps of congressional districts that pack like-minded voters into districts that are ideologically to the left and right of center—and absolutely safe for House candidates who merely play to the party’s base.
Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the head of the House Progressive Caucus, comes from a district that has voted much more Democratic than the country as a whole. PHOTO: ROD LAMKEY/ZUMA PRESS
The result is a proliferation of House members who have no need to speak to the other party, or even to moderates and independents in the center. Indeed, for members from these districts, the best way to get into political trouble back home is to compromise with the other side, an apostasy that will produce a primary-election challenge. At the same time, the number of House members from each party who come from swing districts where it’s necessary to appeal to voters across the political spectrum has declined.
The best way to see this trend is to look at something called the Partisan Voter Index, a device the nonpartisan Cook Political Report uses to rate the ideological leaning of each of the country’s 435 House districts.
The index gauges a district’s partisan leaning by looking at how it voted in each of the last two presidential elections. A district that voted an average 10 points more Democratic than did the nation as a whole, for example, would be scored as a D+10 district. Districts where the presidential vote was close enough that neither party had more than a five-point advantage are considered swing districts.
When Cook Political instituted this system in 1997, there were 164 such swing districts. Today, that number has plunged to 78—which is to say, it has fallen by more than half. By extension, of course, the number of districts that are safely Democratic or Republican has risen by a similar amount.
Thus has the political center been hollowed out. To see the impact of this stratification on Washington, one need only look at the districts that produced the progressive lawmakers who are in the driver’s seat in the current debate over infrastructure and social spending. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, head of the House Progressive Caucus, comes from a district that voted 36 points more Democratic than did the country as a whole in the last two presidential elections.
The members of The Squad, the group of young progressives who have banded together to try to force action in their direction in the House, come from districts that have voted anywhere from 25 to 35 points more Democratic than the country as a whole.
More broadly, the House Progressive Caucus now has 95 members, while just 58 House Democrats come from swing districts. In other words, Democrats barely have a majority in the House—but within that narrow majority, progressives have outsize power.
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene represents the 12th most Republican district in the country. PHOTO: SAMUEL CORUM/BLOOMBERG NEWS
The same dynamic holds on the Republican side. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has outraged even other Republicans with her divisive stands, comes from a district 28 points more Republican than the country—the 12th most Republican district in the land.
This stratified environment is why compromise is so hard, both between and within the parties. “It makes the things that ought to be relatively easy hard,” says Mr. Heye, “and things that are hard become impossible.”