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The Political Pulse

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The Knowledge: Nailed to the mast

Mark Gettleson takes a look at the hyper-partisanship which dominates US politics





WORDS: MARK GETTLESON




Whenever disputes as to whether this Government was doomed from the start arise, pundits leap for the Disraeli quote that “England does not love coalitions.” That may be so, but the endurance of the Rose Garden pact has taken many by surprise. Indeed, the return of Borgen, much loved in Westminster circles, to our TV screens reminds us that across Europe political parties are routinely able to work together in some semblance of order.

But not so a few thousand miles across the Atlantic. British observers look on the extrodinary bitterness of the ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations with disbelief: how the inability of the parties to find any kind of accord in a period of divided government has somehow plagued American politics, far worse than that seen previously. Indeed, it was once known for Democratic Congressmen to happily side with Republican Presidents (as seen when Eisenhower was President and LBJ Senate Leader), and vice versa.

Over the past decades a hyper-partisanship has emerged in Washington on both sides. One of the starkest examples of which has been the extension of Presidential politics to races further down the ballot, with Republican Congressmen wholly extinct from Democratic New England and Democrats in the Deep South, once plentiful in number in the form of white conservatives, reduced to a few predominantly black and Hispanic districts.

Part of this has been the result of a political culture where the national parties and their platforms have become more important, and able to trump local and state subcultures.

An often overlooked role, however, is that played by the redistricting process. The 2010 Republican landslide in the mid-term elections also saw the GOP sweep state houses across key states. Through this, they were able to draw Democratic candidates into tight urban districts, often with large minority populations, where they would win with vast majorities. Republicans would then have far more districts that though less safe, were far more secure.
New technologies, telling legislators which individual blocks to move out of their districts, have furthered the gerrymander. The success of such methods can be seen in the lopsided results in favour of Congressional Republicans in states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where – like the national as a whole – Democrats won the popular vote, but the GOP won most seats.

As such, members of Congress feel increasingly secure at general elections, where the other party represents little threat to their seat. Of far more concern is their own party primary – and, in particular, if they are a Republican seen to be doing business with President Obama, the Tea Party will be weighing heavily on their mind.

The march to the political extremes in American politics threatens to create a vicious cycle, which, in its inability to lead to fiscal compromise, could endanger the stability of the world economy for years to come.