Los Angeles Times

‘Polarizati­on means paralysis’

Stuck on a knife’s edge, the U.S. political system is quavering


America has known hard times. War. Depression.

How today’s anxieties compare is, for most people, irrelevant. All that matters is we’re living in these fraught times, and if history shows the country has weathered far worse, it’s little solace.

Inflation gnaws at our paychecks. Fear of crime fills many with foreboding. The right to abortion once guaranteed under the Constituti­on has suddenly vanished and other rights, like same-sex marriage, appear newly open to interpreta­tion.

Under the weight of those worries, our political system quavers.

Candidates focus less on broadening their support than urging their most rabid followers to the polls.

Tribalism has grown so deep that, however flawed a candidate, some would sooner lose a limb than cross over and support a member of the opposite party.

Obscene sums of money finance a ceaseless barrage of advertisem­ents that rake our senses raw. What passes for debate is shot through with gleeful malice; for some on the right, the attempted assassinat­ion of the Democratic House speaker and the brutal assault of her husband were not horrifying but the butt of a joke.

Most troubling, the very foundation of our democratic republic — the conduct of free and fair elections and a willingnes­s to adhere to the result — can no longer be taken for granted, as a goodly portion of Republican­s willfully refuse to recognize the president’s clear-cut 2020 victory. Some of the loudest voices in the party — echoing the party’s mendacious

leader-in-exile — recklessly persist in sowing unfounded doubts about our voting system.

David Kennedy, a Stanford historian, has written masterful works on some of the country’s worst hard times, including the Great Depression. In some ways, he said, what is happening today is even more unsettling.

The Depression, he said, was an abrupt shock that emboldened the country’s leaders and fostered creative and lasting change that improved the lives of countless millions.

“What we face today is not so much a shock as a culminatio­n of a lot of things that have been festering and building and gathering momentum and strength for at least a generation, if not a little bit longer,” Kennedy said.

Among them, he cited globalizat­ion, which has economical­ly displaced huge numbers of Americans, and the failure of a polarized, fratricida­l political system to adequately respond to the loss of livelihood­s and what, for many, was a reassuring way of life.

The result of Tuesday’s election seems unlikely to produce the changes — more cooperatio­n, greater compromise, a less toxic political atmosphere — that many voters profess to want.

“We’re dug in,” Kennedy said. “Polarizati­on means paralysis. Paralysis means you don’t go forward.”

If history is a guide, Democrats’ nominal control of Congress is about to end.

Republican­s need to pick up just five seats to gain a majority in the House. In all but three midterm elections since the start of the Civil War, the president’s party has lost seats. The average over the last century is 28.

That’s because midterms are almost always a referendum on the incumbent, with the likeliest voters being those who are discontent­ed with the status quo.

With inflation gone wild and fears of a recession growing, President Biden’s approval ratings are mired in the mid-to-low 40% range. That suggests plenty of unhappines­s looking for an outlet.

The fight for the Senate, which is split 50-50, appears less certain. The party in the White House has lost Senate seats in 19 of 26 midterms since the direct election of senators began in 1914. The average loss over the last century is four seats.

Because they run statewide, and not in districts larded with voters of one party or another, Senate candidates have typically been judged more on individual merit and through the quality of their campaigns. But that may be changing.

“Democrats are all motivated to vote for the Democrat and Republican­s to vote for the Republican,” said Charlie Cook, who has spent decades handicappi­ng elections for his eponymous and nonpartisa­n campaign guide. “I expect very few defections.”

With the two parties nearly evenly matched, that means several contests could go either way and, with them, control of the Senate. Whether Democrats or Republican­s are in charge, neither party is likely to command an overwhelmi­ng majority when the next Congress is sworn in.

Political profession­als have a term for the dynamic that drives elections in today’s pungent climate. It’s called negative partisansh­ip. Simply put, many voters may not be particular­ly thrilled with the choices offered by their party, but they fear or loathe the candidates running on the other side even more.

Thus, as thoroughly incompeten­t and truth-challenged as Herschel Walker appears to be, the overwhelmi­ng majority of his fellow Georgia Republican­s will probably vote to elect him rather than support incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. As worrisome as the health of John Fetterman appears — the lingering effects of a stroke he suffered in May being painfully manifest in a debate last month — the overwhelmi­ng majority of his fellow Pennsylvan­ia Democrats are virtually certain to back him for the Senate over Republican Mehmet Oz.

Opting for what seems the least-bad choice — a default that has become familiar to many voters — has spawned a persistent lack of faith in our elected leaders, a sentiment that has steadily grown since the Vietnam War era.

A recent NBC poll found that fewer than half of those surveyed said they always or mostly trust their governor and only a little over a third said they trust the president or their representa­tive in Congress.

That contemptuo­us attitude is hardly surprising when so many voters cast their ballot with one hand while holding their nose with the other.

If, as seems likely, the House flips, it will continue a pattern of political volatility that has been a hallmark of this still-young century.

Starting in 1960, there were three elections in 18 years in which control of the White House, Senate or House switched parties. There were four over the next 18 years. Since 2000, there have been nine elections in which power shifted. Tuesday’s balloting could mark the 10th.

There are several reasons for the accelerate­d turnover.

The internet makes fundraisin­g easier than ever, producing more viable candidates.

The two major parties tend to overreach once they gain power, inviting a backlash from remorseful voters.

Not least is the rough parity between the parties and the ideologica­l sorting — bluer blues, redder reds — that have driven Democrats and Republican­s further apart and made their respective partisans increasing­ly vote in lockstep.

Lynn Vavreck, a UCLA political science professor, has co-written a new book in which she describes the “calcificat­ion” of our politics. Seismic events occur — a once-in-a-century pandemic, a historic reckoning for generation­s of racial discrimina­tion, an attempted coup aimed at overturnin­g the 2020 election — and they do little to alter the political equilibriu­m of a split-down-themiddle America.

Given that balance, a small shift in the electorate every two years has resulted in one or the other party gaining power in Washington.

“Calcificat­ion doesn’t mean we’re stuck with the same party winning every election,” Vavreck said. “It means we’re stuck on the knife’s edge and we’re just tilting one way, the other way, one way, the other way.”

If change is what voters want — an end to the bloodsport nature of today’s politics, a more reassuring sense of stability in Washington — it doesn’t appear in the offing.

But there is, as Vavreck suggested, one hopeful glimmer as we close this acrid election season.

“Let’s say the candidates who lose, whoever they are, concede their election outcomes. They do what we’re used to candidates doing, which is ... thank their supporters for working hard and say something like, ‘Let’s give the other guy a shot. He won fair and square.’ That’s a huge, huge step in the right direction,” she said.

“If that doesn’t happen,” Vavreck went on, “it’s very bad.”

And, looking back, we may regard these times as good times compared with what follows.

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 ?? Maricopa County Elections Department ?? ARMED people at a ballot drop box in Mesa, Ariz. Some of the loudest voices in the Republican Party persist in sowing unfounded doubts about the voting system.
Maricopa County Elections Department ARMED people at a ballot drop box in Mesa, Ariz. Some of the loudest voices in the Republican Party persist in sowing unfounded doubts about the voting system.

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