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In the wake of Watergate, Democrats scored a huge victory in the congressional midterm elections, gaining forty-nine seats. Today, there are only nine current House members whose service predates that election, and, of the seventy freshman Democrats elected in 1974, only George Miller (Calif.), James Oberstar (Minn.), and Henry Waxman (Calif.) remain in the House.
Aside from the change in individuals, the composition of Congress has changed in significant ways that affect the way it operates. The geographical majority has shifted southwest, the solidly Democratic South has been transformed to a Republican region and the two political parties have become sharply polarized.
The Regional Shift
Paralleling population trends, the House is more southwestern. In 1975, the South and West were a minority, with only 184 representatives. Today, those regions comprise a majority of 231 seats. California, Florida and Texas have added twenty-eight seats while New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan have lost thirty seats. No state in the Northeast or Midwest has gained a seat since the 1960 reapportionment.
Those trends show no signs of stopping. Think of what this means for issues such as immigration, water rights, air pollution, etc., where the once dominant concerns of the East and Midwest no longer command a majority.
Blue to Red: The Shift of the South
For most of the twentieth century, the South was conservative and Democratic, and the region most unlike all the others. Republicans were nearly nonexistent there, and contests were fought in Democratic primaries, not general elections. Once elected, Southern Democrats were almost never defeated, rose in seniority to chair important committees and played a disproportionately important role in their party and Congress.
In 1949, 103 of the 105 House seats and all twenty-two Senate seats in the South were held by Democrats. Even in 1975, Democrats still dominated, with eighty-one of the 108 seats in the House and fifteen of twenty-two Senate seats. Today, Republicans dominate the South eighty-two to forty-nine in the House, and with the pickup of five Southern Senate seats in the 2004 elections the GOP now holds eighteen of twenty-two Senate seats.
The demographics of Southern Democrats have changed, too. In 1975, Southern House Democrats numbered seventy-six whites, three blacks and two Hispanics. Today, there are twenty-eight whites, sixteen blacks, five Hispanics.
In 1975, it was difficult to tell many Republicans and Democrats apart. Today, the parties stare at each other suspiciously from afar. There are numerous measures of polarization, the most scientific of which was developed by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal.
Even if you are shy about downloading the voluminous data files from their website (voteview.com), you can watch various animations that show Democratic and Republican members dancing away from the middle and from each other in the past forty years.
In the 108th Congress, every Democratic senator and representative save one (then-Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia) was to the left of every one of their Republican counterparts.
Even such Republican moderates as Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa) were to the right of all the Democrats, and Democrats such as Ben Nelson (Neb.), John Breaux (La.), Bud Cramer (Ala.) and Charlie Stenholm (Texas) were to the left of all Republicans.
You found the same pattern in the 107th, with the additional exception of Rep. James Traficant (Ohio), whose politics, to put it charitably, defied easy description. Traficant, never comfortable with the red and blue uniforms of Republicans and Democrats, traded his polyester suits for an independent’s orange jumpsuit in his new residence in federal prison.
The 109th is not your father’s Congress. We no longer speak of the “conservative coalition” between minority Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats. We are not likely to see a Ronald Reagan bringing along dozens of likeminded Democrats on his major initiatives. Legislative strategies will be premised on the idea of holding together one party with perhaps a small number of allies in the opposing party.
There is much to lament in this state of affairs but little likelihood it will change in the near future. For the 109th, expect the South and West to stick up for their regional interests, the South to speak with a Republican voice and the parties to be more clearly divided than ever.
John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.
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