America's Political Fireworks Are Here to Stay
In these politically divisive times, it’s tempting to harken back to America’s founding and envision our citizenry more united and the political environment less toxic and divisive. Indeed, in April 1800, about 11 months before he became president, Thomas Jefferson offered, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Of course, this was well before the advent of Twitter and cable news.
In truth, Americans, have always been somewhat divided ideologically, but since 2004, the gap between the “median” (i.e., most centrist) Republican and Democrat has widened substantially, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center:
Between 1994 – when Pew began tracking this data – and 2004, the divide between Republicans and Democrats across the country was basically unchanged, and policymaking on Capitol Hill reflected a decidedly more centrist tone. That period saw the enactment of bipartisan capital gains tax cuts, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. But since 2004, the chasm between self-identifying Republicans and Democrats has nearly quadrupled.
You would expect, of course, a stark divide between Democratic voters’ and Republican voters’ views on social issues like immigration, abortion, or gun control. But the division over the last 15 years has also grown significantly on more traditionally esoteric issues, including regulatory and military policy, and those trends started advancing around the same time. Today, more than half of Republicans believe in peace through strength while only 13 percent of Democrats do. Six in 10 GOP voters think environmental regulations are bad for the economy compared to one-fifth of Democrats.
What’s more – and perhaps more concerning – Americans on the right and left no longer like each other as much. Pew found the number of Republicans and Democrats who express very unfavorable opinions of members of the other party “have increased dramatically ...” In 1994, two years into Bill Clinton’s presidency, just 20 percent of Americans viewed members of the opposing party unfavorably. Today, 44 percent of Democrats have an unfavorable view of Republicans while 45 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Democrats.
To make matters even more worrisome, the fault lines are no longer just between the two parties.
On Tuesday, June 26, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old self-proclaimed socialist, defeated Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Ny) in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has been compared to Rep. David Brat’s (R-Va.) defeat of then-GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in their June 2014 primary. The comparisons are apt.
Rep. Crowley had been considered the likely successor to current House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), perhaps as early as next year. Ocasio-Cortez defeated a giant in her party, just like Brat did. She also did so handily, with little money, just like Brat did. The margin in the Cantor-Brat race was 10 points; Ocasio-Cortez won by an incredible 15 points. Rep. Crowley outspent Ocasio-Cortez 18-1. In 2014, Brat’s total campaign budget was $200,000; Rep. Cantor’s committee spent that sum at steakhouses and drained a total of $5 million.
Most importantly, the two races indicate another giant leap away from the middle.
After Rep. Brat’s victory in 2014, the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky wrote, “The House GOP wasn’t exactly ready to start cutting deals with Obama even with Cantor … The legislative process, already shut down, will only be more so.” Swap out the proper nouns in that sentence and it could foretell the practical consequences of the Crowley defeat. Indeed, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said Ocasio-Cortez’s victory indicates where his party is headed. In a July 3 interview, Perez explained his two daughters, both in their 20s, were energized by Ocasio-Cortez because “she represents the future of our party.”
Rep. Brat’s surprise defeat of former Majority Leader Cantor was widely regarded as the moment when the Tea Party movement became the driving force in the House Republican caucus, able to halt the progress of legislation its members didn’t like, or radically alter bills to reflect supporters’ ultra-conservative beliefs. If Perez is to be believed, if Democrats take control of the House next year, the most liberal faction of his party, emboldened by Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, will look to do the same in the next Congress.