Woodruff: Dissecting the Dysfunction


It’s possible we’ll look back on this period at some distant time in the future and smile, but right now, that’s hard to imagine. With the stock market plummeting (a drop of 1,200 points in the Dow Industrials in the past two weeks) on the heels of poor economic indicators and the spectacle of Congress and the White House in a mud wrestling contest over raising the debt ceiling, the outlook is overwhelmingly grim.

If the economy does go into another recession, which experts now say is possible, if not yet likely (see my conversation with Hugh Johnson and Gillian Tett on Thursday’s NewsHour), we can look back on the past few weeks in Washington as a surreal moment, when all the energy was expended not on finding jobs for out of work Americans, but on arguing over the shape of a deficit reduction package viewed as disappointing by almost all who looked at it.

I was curious about how today’s partisan environment compares to previous times, knowing American history is replete with examples of division: the Vietnam War, Civil Rights legislation, just to name a couple in the modern era. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government lecturer David King told me one has to go back almost a century to find the conflict between the two main political parties as entrenched as it is now.

In a “pre-interview” with NewsHour political reporter Beth Summers before appearing on Wednesday’s program, King said, “When you look at party unity scores … and the question of how often is the super-majority of one party voting against the super-majority of the other party … this is the highest polarization since the 1920’s.”

But it was King’s projection for the future that should be concerning to anyone who believes a democracy benefits from a high percentage of voter participation. He observed that, because of the polarization — leading to an almost constant state of political warfare in Washington — “Americans are checking out.” They’re frustrated, he believes, because they see their elected representatives “aren’t representing them, they’re representing the folks who vote in the primaries, who are increasingly wing-nutty.”

King notes that turnout in primary elections, especially congressional off-year elections, has decreased dramatically, except among voters he calls “hyper-partisans,” people who hold either far-right or far-left views. He reminded us that in 2010, when Tea Party candidates were enormously successful, people showing up for the primaries were motivated, but they represented only 15.8 percent of eligible voters. That’s only half the percentage who voted in the congressional primaries of 1966, and a reminder that a smaller and smaller slice of America is deciding who serves in Congress and passes laws that affect all of us.

King didn’t venture a prediction about where this is headed but said it could lead to an increasingly strong Tea Party, the ultimate overhaul of the party system or a Republican Party split. Or perhaps a government weaker at the national level, and stronger locally.

As we wring our hands at the uncertainty of it all, King concluded with one surprising forecast: that the so-called “Super Committee” of Congress, tasked with finding an additional $ 1.6 trillion in savings this fall, will actually do the job it is supposed to do. He argues that the consequences of failure, steep cuts in defense spending and benefits for senior citizens, will hang over committee members, making success more likely.

King doesn’t look like a man prone to flights of fancy. Wouldn’t it be something if he were right? I’ll check back in on this in the late fall, when the super committee meets and makes it recommendations.

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