Ex-House leaders dish on political polarization
Frustration with the sometimes sluggish legislative process isn’t unique to voters — a point that two former legislators hammered home in a lecture Tuesday night.
Former Congressmen Tom Davis (R–Va.) and Martin Frost (D–Texas) spoke at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library about legislative gridlock and how bipartisanship can remedy it, an issue they address in a new book they co-authored with journalist Richard Cohen.
Davis and Frost have a combined 40 years of congressional experience, and both served two terms as the chair of their respective party’s House campaign committees.
“(Because we’ve both had these roles), we tend to see things structurally the same way,” Frost said.
According to a 2008 interview with The New York Times, Davis decided not to run for re-election because he was dissatisfied with the partisan nature of Congress. At the time, he said party divides were increasingly making the process of lawmaking dysfunctional, especially as a new wave of social conservatives were becoming a dominant contingency in the GOP.
“I’m a partisan Republican and Martin is a partisan Democrat,” Davis said. “But we were dealmakers, we know how to work with the other side, we felt when the election was over, it was time for everyone to act like grown ups again and try to get things done.”
In their book, Davis and Frost elaborate on the growing political polarization they observed while in office. During Tuesday night’s talk, Davis noted that congressional redistricting, media business models that focus on elevating partisan viewpoints and the increasing amount of influence monied interests wield in politics have all contributed to the demise of the moderate politician.
“The Republican Conference has never been as conservative as it is now, and the Democratic Conference never as left as it is now,” Davis said.
Both congressmen noted that gerrymandering — a practice by which state legislatures manipulate electoral districts to favor one political party (likely the one most represented in the legislature) over another — and the consequent creation of politically homogeneous districts, has severely restricted split-ticket elections and encouraged people to vote based on party rather than specific candidates with whom they share values.
“If Picasso were alive today, he would not have to go through his ‘blue period’ for artistic fulfillment. He could be a drawer of congressional districts, get the same level of artistic fulfillment and probably a lot more money,” Davis said.
Frost added that, as a result of gerrymandering, voters are incentivized to elect more extreme candidates instead of moderate candidates.
“Divided government is kind of the new normal,” Frost said. “Since 1980, 80 percent of the time we’ve had divided government. One party has controlled the presidency and the other party has controlled at least one house of Congress.”
Davis and Frost added that much of the polarization and resulting policy deadlock that exists in Congress today is due to the increasing importance of primary elections on the makeup of government.
“Very few people lose in a primary, but they wake up every morning in mortal fear that some well-funded, crazy extreme candidate in their own party is going to run against them in the primary, so they alter their voting patterns and they are less likely to cooperate with the other side,” Frost said.
The duo suggested that a law requiring states to appoint non-partisan district commissions would mitigate the current polarization in Congress.
“That would help, and you wouldn’t have these crazy-looking districts,” Frost said. “You’d have more competitive districts and the two parties would have to talk to each other — and that’s what’s missing right now.”
Due to contribution limits to national political parties, Frost said partisan-fueled interests have assumed a greater role in funding candidates, granting extreme factions enormous influence over politicians and particularly presidential candidates. He said super PACs and other well-funded groups and politicians often coordinate to manage campaigns.
Frost said either the Federal Election Commission or Congress should pass laws that address this issue of coordination, making it clear that it could be bad for the state of politics since there are no effective limits on the activities of these outside groups. They also advocate for more specific and comprehensive campaign finance and contribution reports.
“We have to do something about this amount of money in politics today because it has totally distorted the system, and again when you combine that with (gerrymandering), then there’s an incentive for people to never cooperate with the other side because they’re afraid some some far-right or far-left group will come in (support a more extreme candidate),” Frost said.
Davis and Frost also called for efforts to increase voter turnout. They emphasized this point in the case of primary elections, in which turnout has been historically low. As an example, according to Michigan’s Department of State, only 19.7 percent of registered state voters participated in 2012’s presidential primary. Presidential election years typically see a higher voter turnout.
Ann Arbor resident Sven Hahr said he felt the former congressmen’s presentation was balanced and effective. In particular, he said he thought Davis and Frost’s theory on polarization was sensible.
“It’s always good to have people from both sides of the aisle. Otherwise you have no diversity of thought and one of the criticisms of collegiate America is not enough diversity of thought … so I thought what they presented was good,” he said.