David Broder–or an automated David Broderesque column-generator–bemoaned once again (Washington Post, 10/14/10) that "As the Gulf Between GOP and Democrats Widens, the Center Is Lost." To illustrate this dire situation, Broder (or the Broderbot) cited congressional voting patterns:
Bill Galston, the Brookings Institution's resident political philosopher, was the first of the day to point out that, statistically speaking, the center had already disappeared. He was referring to the congressional voting studies, which I have previously cited, showing that, apparently for the first time, there is no overlap between the most liberal Republican in the House and the most conservative Democrat when it comes to roll-call votes.
Historically, there have always been a few Republicans who voted often with the Democrats and a few more Democrats who lined up regularly with the Republicans. But now the ideological lines are more sharply drawn, and the distance between the parties is greater.
The phenomenon of party polarization is not brand new, though–Broder is referring to VoteView, a mathematical model that arranges lawmakers by how often they vote together, producing a scale that corresponds to the left/right spectrum. It's been finding that every House Republican has been to the right of every House Democrat since 2003. Before that, in the 107th Congress, there was one Democratic representative who voted to the right of several Republicans: James Traficant, who is best remembered for being expelled from the House after being convicted of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. If only we had more politicians like him….
The fact is that the era of "bipartisanship" that Broder is so nostalgic for was a reflection of the fact that the Democratic Party once had, for historical and tactical reasons, a sizable number of conservative segregationists in it. After the battle for state-enforced segregation was lost, these conservatives drifted to their natural home in the Republican Party. Looking back on a time when urban liberals campaigned under the same banner as Southern racists as some kind of golden age is rather perverse–even for the Broderbot.