As election day 2012 looms, Americans are waking up to the fact that we have two parallel political cultures, one intensely partisan and ideological and the other far more moderate and centrist in its approach.
This isn’t a gap that exists between Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives.
It is, rather, a difference between the increasingly gerrymandered reality of US House seats, and the far more broad political context that shapes Senate and presidential contests.
Over the last twenty years, Democrats and Republicans — the GOP far more skillfully and deliberately — have moved to redraw district boundaries in House races, so that districts are “safe” for their candidates.
As a consequence, a growing number of meaningful congressional elections actually take place during the primaries.
Whoever prevails to represent the Democrats in a safe “blue” district will almost certainly win election in November. The same holds true in “red” districts.
This means that House members have grown more and more partisan, more ideologically pure.
Because the modern GOP is more ideologically driven than the Democratic Party, the House has emerged as the logical base of power and the source of policy ideas for the party writ large.
It’s noteworthy that this year’s presidential slate included, at various times and in various roles, Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, Ron Paul from Texas, and Newt Gingrich from Georgia, and Michele Bachmann from Minnesota.
(Former House majority leader Dick Armey was also a driving force in organizing and mobilizing the tea party movement in 2009 and 2010.)
This hard-line formula has worked for Republicans in the Congress, allowing them to end decades of Democratic control in the 1990s and cutting short Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as House Speaker in the 2010 midterms.
But in “generalist” elections — for US Senate and for president — this approach is proving far more risky, perhaps even self-destructive.
As we’ve noted before, many of the biggest, most populous and affluent states in the country are already resoundingly Democratic. These are parts of the US where the GOP’s House-centric brand just doesn’t work.
That trend alone is making it exceedingly difficult for Mitt Romney — himself an old-school centrist — to top Barack Obama in the race for the White House.
In fact, one of Romney’s core challenges has been trying to satisfy a GOP base that has grown used to their politicians sounding more like fire-breathing members of Congress, while also communicating effectively with a more generalist audience.
This disconnect explains, in part, Romney’s “47%” gaffe. It’s a natural stance for House members to talk dismissively of people outside their
ideological comfort zone.
These days, thanks to gerrymandering, “those people” generally don’t live in the congress-member’s district, or are marginalized politically.
Which means that dismissive and even hostile rhetoric about immigrants, the poor, people who live in cities, minorities, the unemployed, and those who rely on entitlements has become a natural part of conservative rhetoric.
Indeed, opposition to those groups is often seen as a marker of ideological purity, a sign of conservative bona fides.
But the fact is that Romney does need some of those “other” constituencies — Hispanics, the government-dependent elderly and women, in particular — if he hopes to win a national election.
This same disconnect between the two types of American politics is also shaping races for the Senate.
America’s ten most populous states — the parts of the US where the majority of citizens live — are already represented by Democrats by a 12-to-8 margin.
It’s telling, I think, that Republican senate candidates tend to fare better in smaller, more homogenous states which have populations and demographics that actually resemble concentrated House districts.
The GOP’s brand, and its more pointed ideological posture, appears to be hurting Senate candidates again in this year’s big-state Senate contests. Rep. Todd Akin, whose fire-breather approach was a perfect fit in a bright red House district, has fallen behind in Missouri.
Sen. Scott Brown has tried to distance himself from the Republican Party’s leadership, but appears to be falling behind in his re-election bid in Massachusetts.
And a Florida Senate race that once looked like a likely pick-up for Republican Connie Mack — another House member from a “safe” GOP district — is now looking like a fairly easy win for the Democrats.
In many of these “generalist” races, Republicans have been haunted by hard-line positions that they staked out while representing more ideologically focused communities in the House.
We’ll see in November whether some of these candidates can find ways to pivot from one type of more fiery, intra-party, primary-style politics to the less ideological “I can represent everybody” stance that tends to prevail in big statewide and national contests.
As a sort of footnote, I’ll point out that this trend simply hasn’t occurred in the Democratic Party.
More ideologically pure members of congress on the left — Dennis Kucinich, for example — haven’t enjoyed the same resonance in national politics, nor do thy define their party’s brand.
Try to envision a figure like Kucinich mobilizing a national movement the way, say, Ron Paul has done within the GOP. It just doesn’t scan.
Or imagine Nancy Pelosi attempting to run for national office, or trying to shape the national culture, in the way that Gingrich has tried to do. It’s a nonstarter.
Instead, Democrats have tended to look for leadership and policy ideas from their governors and from members of the Senate.
This one difference serves to illuminate just how far apart our two major parties have grown, not just in their policies and their ideological stances, but in the basic mechanisms they use to generate ideas, choose leaders, and shape their own internal cultures.