Newt Gingrich Isn't to Blame for Polarized Congress

Only the inclusion of a third political party will fix the paralysis currently seen in Washington.

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Sean Theriault of the University of Texas at Austin argues at CNN.com that former Speaker Newt Gingrich was the nefarious innovator of hyper-partisanship in Congress:

When Gingrich entered the House of Representatives in 1979, he quickly became the leader of a group of insurgent conservatives whose chief aim was a Republican Party majority. Gingrich's partisan antics not only transformed the House, but the Senate as well. Washington has not been the same since.

Theriault's analysis isn't so much wrong as it is woefully incomplete.

There's an extensive literature of thumbsucking anxiety about congressional polarization.

[ Check out 2011: The Year in Cartoons.]

"Gerrymandered" districts, which supposedly produce a surfeit of "safe" House seats; democratized primaries that are dominated by hardcore activists; new media that sensationalize controversy and make compromise difficult—these are the most often cited culprits.

There's an element of truth to each of these explanations, which are by no means mutually exclusive.

But these are the "trees," and the hangover of racial politics is the "forest."

[ Read Scott Galupo: Neither Left Nor Right Have Answer to Economic Conundrum.]

As Matthew Yglesias wrote in The Atlantic: 

The legacy of the Civil War had made the Democrats the party of southern white supremacists, but the legacy of the New Deal had also made them the party of northern liberals and many urban African Americans. These latter constituencies were demanding federal intervention in southern affairs to secure the rights of southern blacks. At the same time, many members of the GOP—the traditional home of black voters and the party of racial progress in many states—were resisting these demands, which struck them as violating the principle of a modest federal government.

The result was a muddle. Nearly every congressional representative from the South was a Democrat and an opponent of civil rights, irrespective of his or her views about anything else. So while most Democrats were to the left of Republicans on economic and foreign-policy issues, many were more conservative than the average Republican on matters of race. Racial liberals and racial conservatives could be found in both parties.

Since the 1970s, however, the significance of civil-rights conflicts in American elections has declined sharply. As older representatives left Congress in the 1980s, political divisions became cleaner. Ideologically moderate politicians have not disappeared, but relatively conservative Democrats like Senators Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu are, on most issues, now to the left of relatively liberal Republicans such as Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The meet-in-the-middle overlap is gone.

This "great ideological sorting out," as Ed Kilgore called it, probably peaked before Newt Gingrich actually wielded the speaker's gavel:

The 1994 election was the high-water mark of the great ideological sorting that occurred between the two parties. That made the environment particularly harsh for southern Democrats, as well as those in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain West, where many ancestral attachments to the Donkey Party came unmoored.

[ See a slide show of Newt Gingrich's career.]

The solution to the problem of polarization isn't to try to restore the "muddle." That's simply not possible. And as Yglesias noted, ideological coherence isn't necessarily a bad thing. What we need is at least one more party: "Most democracies have at least three parties represented in their legislatures. That gives people more choices, while still giving them coherent choices."

We'd need also to reform our winner-to-take all system so that a new party, or parties, could actually win seats in Congress.

A word about what a third party should look like: In my opinion, we don't necessarily need what the mainstream media insists we need—a party that's fiscally conservative and socially liberal. As Michael Lind has written for years, a party that's socially conservative and fiscally liberal would track better with a majority of voters.

In short, I think the problem isn't polarization, but rather paralysis. The former needn't result in the latter. It's the absence of the above ideological option that has our politics in a rut.