; Your World
Hult agrees that the parties have become more homogeneous within. Republicans are far more conservative,
Hult and Ornstein say, and Democrats
have moved to the left—though not as
much as Republicans have moved right.
The result can be more party-line votes
and gridlock. Before the mid-1980s,
politicians built coalitions that involved
compromises across party lines. But with
more cohesive parties, party-line votes
are the norm now, says Betty Koed, associate Senate historian. And with the Senate in Democratic control and the House
run by Republicans, some deadlock is inevitable.
Ornstein likes to envision a Washington football field of lawmakers stretched out by ideology.
In the 1960s and earlier, the politicians would
form a bell curve with
the bulk of them near
the 50-yard line. The
current football field
map of Congress would
have “a barren midfield,
a whole lot [of people] at
the goal posts and not a
few floating in the Anacostia River,” he says.
Grover Norquist, an
who heads Americans
for Tax Reform, sees the
shift to more homoge-
neous parties as helpful
because voters can see a
party label and have a good idea of a candidate’s
stand on most issues. “Instead of being divided
on where your great-grandfather was in the Civil
War,” he says, “it’s divided by principle—bigger
government or smaller government.”
originally had supported because they want to
draw sharp distinctions between the parties.
Norquist sees the health care law as a different
kind of perfect example: It was a government
takeover of a major portion of the
economy that left Americans angry at
political overreaching. “People know
what it’s like to go to the post office.
They don’t want going to the doctor
to be like that. We have had a massive
expansion of government,” he says.
The massive expansion of cam-
paigns is undeniable. As costs ex-
ploded, lawmakers have needed to
raise money throughout their terms
to get reelected. Endless campaign-
ing has also diverted
their attention and
energy from the nitty-
gritty of legislating.
To meet heavy cam-
paign demands, lawmakers more
often live in their districts so they
can spend more time with voters
and then fly to Washington for
midweek votes. That, Gergen says,
has not helped the civility level of
political debate and the ability to
“They parachute in and para-
chute out and don’t know each
other,” says Gergen. “It’s much
easier to villainize someone you
But Norquist sees the perma-
nent campaign as a healthy part of
democracy: “People permanently
talking about what to do and how
to vote—that’s OK.”
1. Engage. Take an
interest in the process.
2. Study the issues that
are important to you.
3. Listen to contrary
4. Don’t take yes for an
answer. Keep pushing
You Can Do
Citizen shortcomings Hult says
citizens’ lack of knowledge and their refusal
to vote make it hard for politicians to represent the people.
“Most of us have just given up,” she says.
“It’s our fault as voters.”
Ornstein says trouble is unavoidable when
voters gravitate toward candidates who brag
they don’t know anything about politics. “So
long as voters continue to be drawn to yahoos
whose main claim is: ‘I’m not like those other
guys,’ we are going to get more dysfunction.”
Dysfunction by design Some of
government’s dysfunction came with the system.
“The framers did not want an efficient govern-
ment,” Hult says. “They were concerned that
things not be done too quickly.”
But the world has changed. Communications,
the speed of business and the speed of change are
faster than they were in the days of quill pens.
Thomas Jefferson and his historic concern for
state prerogatives added another dimension to
the conflict by protecting a significant govern-
mental role for state initiative that is being re-
vived today. Norquist sees the problem less in the
structure of government than in the size.
“The government is not working well because
government that gets this big doesn’t work well.
Make the government smaller and doing things
it knows how to do,” he says.
“The founders wanted government small because they
knew government was dangerous. We need to rein it
Permanent campaign Getting any-
thing enacted in Washington is tough when the
new campaign season starts the morning after
the last election. “We have become completely
dominated by the permanent campaign. Every-
thing gets filtered through the campaign,” Orn-
stein says, adding that he has seen an attitude of:
“If Obama is for it, we’re against it, even if it’s good
for the country.”
The recent health care overhaul is a perfect
example, Ornstein says. Republicans have op-
posed—and tried to dismantle—even ideas they
Among the problems the
public sees with government, the influence of lobbyists and other special
interests is paramount. In
a Pew Research Center
study, 82 percent of those
polled complained about
the influence bought with
have grown dramatically
since the 1960s, Hult says,
and in addition to lobbying