Money, district lines driving polarization

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 11, 2012

RALEIGH — Whenever folks begin preaching about political polarization in America, they have a tendency to focus on the symptoms.
After all, the symptoms are everywhere.
It is politicians calling each other liars or shouting each other down. It is cable TV talking heads becoming the proxies for political parties. It is former friends refusing to speak to one another.
Anyone can easily see, in conversation with friends or family, or through exchanges on social media sites, that the political divide has widened, our dialogue about politics has become more coarse.
My wife recently relayed a story in which she left a dinner table after hearing those around her begin tossing around the word “communist” as if Stalin were reborn and headed down Pennsylvania Avenue.
I’m not sure whether any of those involved in the conversation had yet burned down their houses in protest of the new collective.

Of course, we have a two-party system in the United States, and political division and divisiveness are nothing new.
But so often, the implication of today’s political dialogue is that those on one side or the other are either not “real Americans” or that their political views are just a well-disguised means to further their own greed.
Against this backdrop, N.C. State University’s Emerging Issues Institute this week held a series of discussions about political polarization dubbed the “Redesigning Democracy Summit.”
The organizers correctly identify political polarization as a threat to the required political consensus and action needed to address the country’s problems.
As David Brooks of The New York Times has written, today’s politics seems predicated on the unrealistic belief that one political party or the other is going to obliterate the opposing political party and completely have its way.
That unrealistic notion becomes a hurdle to the compromises that have always been necessary to fashion political solutions. But the what and how don’t explain the why.

The two 800-pound gorillas that are so often ignored when discussing the polarized political landscape are money and lines.
In electoral politics, vast sums of the money that fuel seven- and eight-figure political campaigns come from the far right and far left, not the middle.
Is it any surprise that the politicians answer to those who provide the campaign dollars? Is it any surprise that their words become those of the left and right, and that the political middle becomes muted?
The political interests of the middle, particularly the middle-class wage earner, is no better represented at the statehouse. Who is paying their lobbyist? When do they get up and speak at the committee podium?
The lines that dictate political polarization appear on maps of legislative and congressional districts. They are drawn not to keep residents of one region or another together, but to put one political party or the other in power.
The result is safe districts, decided in political primaries not general elections, where more partisan voters elect more partisan candidates.
Our politically polarized world won’t change until the money and the lines begin changing.

Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.