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The shaping of a divisive 2012 election cycle

September 26, 2011

The trite-but-true axiom for the 2012 election cycle: Political polarization starts at the bottom.
The press and the pundits love to slam the Washington crowd and the Congress for the gridlock in the capital and the failure to get anything done – even such a no-brainer as extending federal disaster aid.
But John Harwood points out in a small but trenchant New York Times article today that divisiveness begins at the bottom. Citing poll numbers, Harwood compares the composition of today’s Democratic and Republican Party identifiers with 1979. In 1979, during Jimmy Carter’s administration self-described conservatives (31 percent) outnumbered liberals (21 percent) in a New York Times/CBS News poll. Today among Democrats the number of liberals (38 percent) dwarfs self-identified conservatives (18 percent).
At the same time the GOP has become more purely conservative. In 1979, 42 percent of Republicans said they were conservative and 15 percent liberals. Today conservatives represent 63 percent of Republicans and liberals just 6 percent.
What is happening is the development of two ideologically pure parties that resemble European-style parliamentary democracies more than historic American traditions. Some of this movement can be attributed to civil rights. White southerners voted Democratic for more than 100 years after the Civil War when Democrats were the party of Jim Crow and The GOP was the party of Abe Lincoln. This began to change in the mid-1960s, when the Democrats became the party of civil rights and voting rights for blacks and the Republican Party was captured by conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil rights Act of 1964.
There once were liberal and conservative wings of each party in Congress. Democratic senators included liberals such as Phil Hart of Michigan, George McGovern of South Dakota and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. But the Democratic caucus also held Jim Eastland and John Stennis of Mississippi, staunch conservatives.
On the Republican side, Goldwater, of Arizona and Jim Buckley of New York served alongside George Aiken of Vermont, John Chafee of Rhode Island and Jake Javits of New York.
Now there are no liberal Republicans, a couple of moderates like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and the rest pretty conservative. (Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Rhode Island’s Linc Chafee were the last two liberal Republican senators; both eventually left the GOP and became independent).  Not all of the conservatives are Tea Party obstructionists; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee recently left the GOP leadership a sign he is unhappy with the no-compromise positions of the Republican congressional leadership.
There aren’t many true conservatives in the Senate on the Democratic side; the southern Democratic senators have been replaced by Republicans. And the ascendancy of the Tea Party has veered the GOP even further to the right.

Zen question of the day: Could John Chafee win a low-turnout GOP primary today in R.I.??

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