Ezra Klein on E.J. Dionne on Political Polarization

There are a couple useful tidbits in EJ Dionne’s column on Nancy Pelosi. First, he asks Pelosi why health reform is being considered for the reconciliation process but cap and trade is not. “The priority, of course, is to pass health care,” Pelosi replies. To my knowledge, Pelosi hasn’t said that before. More to the point, she’s not signaled it. At a recent Maria Leavey breakfast, she implied just the opposite, and many folks I’ve spoken to on the Hill have suggested that her priority was energy rather than health care. Whatever those personal commitments and preferences, now everyone is signing from the same hymnal: Health care is the priority.

Dionne also offers a nice reminder of the changing composition of the House GOP, and the implications for bipartisanship.

>[Pelosi] also faces a Republican Party that is much more conservative and Southern than it used to be. It’s easy to forget how dramatic the shift has been over time — and therefore easy to miss how much of the current nostalgia for bipartisanship is unrealistic.

>In the Congress elected in 1960, there were 174 Republicans. Only seven came from the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, while 35 came from New York or New England, the heartlands of moderate Republicanism.

>In the current Congress, 72 of the 178 Republicans come from the Old Confederacy. Almost all of them are deeply conservative. There is not a single Republican House member from New England, and there are only three from New York.

In other words, there used to be a lot of people who believed similar things and came from similar perspectives but were in different parties. A New York Republican was probably closer to a New York Democrat than to a Mississippi Republican. That environment was ripe for bipartisanship. But now there are fewer people who believe similar things yet serve in different parties. There’s more ideological coherence across the parties. But it’s always worth pointing out that polarization is the norm, not the aberration. The post-War consensus was the aberration. This graph tracking the distance between the two congressional parties tells the story well:

This halcyon era of bipartisanship was a short blip that was primarily the product of a grotesque alliance between the anti-civil rights Dixiecrats and the conservative Republicans who would eventually absorb them. There’s very little to fondly recall about that.

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