Today, the Washington Center kicked off the first seminar with Steve Scully from C-SPAN and Robert Costa from the Washington Post. Scully engaged participants by asking individuals who have not been to Washington DC before to describe the current state of DC’s politics. Students eagerly raised their hands to describe DC’s politics as frightening, scary, unique, and chaotic. As someone who has not been to DC before I had a completely different answer, but wasn’t one of the brave ones to raise my hand. In all reality, DC politics are predictable and have been for many years.
It is no secret that party polarization has been on the rise for years now. Therefore, it is no surprise that we are in the midst of a government shutdown. Currently, the Democratic Party controls the House of Representatives and the Republican Party controls the Senate. Therefore, any bill that needs to be passed, like spending for the wall, must have both parties’ approval. While talking with James Rice (Senator Chuck Grassley’s Legislative Director), he noted that Congress is considered a mirror image of the people. Therefore, Congress is polarized because the American people are, which is very true. The next question to be asked is how do we change this? The CEO of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb, asked us today during seminar what we can do to improve political conversations. Here is an easy start: start listening to someone’s point of view instead of thinking about a rebuttal to why they are wrong. To believe that someone’s opinion is wrong, you first need to understand where they are coming from by listening to them.
Last year, I had the opportunity to take a class, Congress and the Legislative Process with Rachel Paine Caufield. This class discussed realignment and the role of party polarization in Congress. If we take a look at history, this idea of increased party polarization is nothing new. Data shows that there is typically a rise in party polarization that is then followed by realignment of the parties. A party realignment consists of a shift in the coalitions that make up the political parties, which may drastically alter the balance of power between political parties. This can also be expressed as a change in the voting behavior of voters. A voter may cross the aisle and start identifying with a different party. Therefore, the idea that Congress is highly polarized and cannot agree is nothing new. This can be seen with the last government shutdown less than a year ago and the shutdown from 2013 with the Affordable Care Act.
The effect that the media has on the rise of party polarization is worth mentioning. The media has incredible power to influence how constituents see their Congressmen and women. Because of this we rarely see these individuals cross party lines. But who can really blame them? The media will always be right there to report these Congressmen and women’s every move. Which can have a detrimental effect on their political careers, especially those in the House of Representatives. With their two-year term limit, it is very easy to lose to a challenger because the media has labeled you as a traitor if you decide to cross the aisle on a vote. Therefore, parties stay polarized with fear of being voted out of their seat until a realignment that changes the power of parties. Altogether, the current state of politics in DC aren’t scary, in reality, they are quite normal. This is how our political climate functions.