Sad Truth About the Vanishing Middle in Congress

As our friends at "The Fix" report:

In the last three decades, the number of members in the middle in the House dropped from 344 (79 percent of the House) in 1982  to four (.9 percent of the House) in 2013.  As the slide suggests, redistricting — the decennial re-drawing of the nation's Congressional lines — plays a major role in that decline. The last two nationwide re-draws have largely been incumbent protection efforts, making Republican districts more Republican and Democratic districts more Democratic. Self-sorting — the growing tendency of people to live around like-minded people — is also a major factor in the disappearance of the ideological middle in the House…

Taken together, there are four — FOUR — members of the ideological middle out of the 535 members of the House and Senate combined. That comes out to approximately .7 percent of the entire Congress. In 1982, by way of comparison, more than 75 percent of Members of Congress were part of the ideological middle. So, in the last 30 years, the middle has lost 74 percent of its membership in Congress.

To underscore this point, check out the graphic below:




23 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. mamajama55mamajama55 says:

    That explains so much. I blame the polarizing effect of the tea party,  and its instantaneously broadcast talking points.

    I don't see any way to fix it except to elect moderates of both parties, or somehow, to circumvent the two party system to elect independent /unaffiliated candidates based on issues and policies. Unlikely, I know.


  2. gertie97 says:

    We've nationalized elections to our detriment. When John Salazar and Greg Walcher ran for the 3rd CD open seat in 2004, I was at the Club 20 debate to hear them. I've attended many over the years and up to that point, Western Slope and southern Colorado natural resource issues had been the almost exclusive subjects of debate. But in 2004, the only district-related issue was brought up by Salazar in his opening remarks, blasting Walcher for supporting Amendment A. Walcher ignored it in his opening, and none of the questions posed by the Club 20 panel was on natural resources. Instead, it was all national. It's only grown worse.


    • VoyageurVoyageur says:

      Club 20 used to have great cloud precisely because it focused on local issues like natural resources.   Who gives a rat's ass about gun control when the future of the Roan Plateau is at stake?  Sad to see it become merely another battleground for national wedge issues.  
      Club 20 will never repeal (or enact) Obamacare, but it can be a powerful, even decisive, voice on vital local issues like water, energy development, highways, etc.

  3. Early WormEarly Worm says:

    While redistricting may be a contributing factor, I do not think it is the primary cause. If you read the article, you will see that the Senate has had a similar trend. The Senate is not subject to redistricting.  I think a bigger factor is the "re-sorting" of the parties.  The graph doesn't really show the "middle," it shows the overlap.  The overlap has vanished.  The ideological spectrum for both parties has shrunk, although I believe that the effect has been more pronounced in the republican party.  There aren't any conservative southern democrats anymore.  There are not any socially liberal, financially conservative northeastern republicans anymore. The parties have become ideologically pure. The damage to the democratic process is the same, regardless of the cause, but I do not think the problem is solely based on sercure districts.

    • There was a solid article from Daily Kos's election watchers a while back that went in to some detial examining the various trends that have led to today's House composition. I wish I could find it now, but in summary, it gave equal blame between redistricting and the political re-alignment.

      As you note, there are almost no conservative Southern Democrats any more. The South has gotten past the great Republican betrayal (Lincoln) that kept Democrats in power, and they've now re-aligned to the more socially conservative Republicans.

      So, too, with the northeast Republicans. Tradition and business interests are what kept them in power, but tradition even in New England dies down over generations, and Democrats are (despite Republican protests) much more business friendly than they were previously perceived to be. At the same time, Republican activists have spent 30+ years trying to purify the party, leaving less and less room for the moderates.

      Then you add in the smaller effects of re-alignment… Democrats and Republicans both have self-separated into various cities and counties within the states. For Democrats, the effect is worse (in terms of representation) because they tend to concentrate in the cities in very high proportions. This leads to Democratic districts with huge partisan margins, and Republican districts with mostly smaller margins – making partisan redistricting easy, logically defensible and in some cases mandatory under the law.

      If you want to look at redistricting, try The Great Gerrymander of 2012. Redistricting really comes in to play for a few large states – most of them battlegrounds. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia… These states have decent populations and are (to greater or lesser extent) wildly out of balance between their House representation and partisan makeup. Add to those states Texas (one of the largest delegations, and one of the most gerrymandered), Illinois (the only Democratic gerrymander that made the author's cut), and Arizona (the only commissioned redistricting that resulted in an out-of-balance House membership). Eight of these ten states were redistricted by Republicans after the 2010 census to shore up their House membership – one where they hold a 234-201 lead despite losing the national House vote by 1.4 million votes.

      • MichaelBowmanMichaelBowman says:

        This is a great read as well:  "Red State, Blue City"

        • dwyer says:

          I have not read "Red State, Blue City" so I do not know if it suggests one possibility that would allow the Republicans to circumvent the looming demographic challenges to the "white male majority."  What has been suggested, on some talk shows, is that big states, like Michigan, PA(although to may lose its Republican majority) and Ohio could legislate changes in how their electoral college votes were decided.  Instead of a state wide election deciding which candidate would win the total electoral vote, the votes would be determined by Congressional District.  That would allow the Republican suburban and rural districts to overrule the tremendous population advantage of the big cities with their miniority populations.

          It would guarantee Republican control of the White House for the foreseeable future.  


  4. More, the "ideological middle" has shifted to the right over the past few decades. Where you might have found advocates for ecology or social safety nets in the Republican ranks, there are none today; but support for big business and market-driven decisions has only grown in the Democratic party over those same years, with social issues being the major swing to the left within the party. That the "middle" is nearly vacant is doubly disturbing once you take those individual party comparisons in to effect.

    • DavieDavie says:

      Is there any significant increase in Unaffiliated voters?  Have either party seen a decrease in numbers?  What about increases in membership in the minor parties?

      I took a quick spin around Google and didn't see much evidence one way or the other.

      Given the rise of hyper-partisanship, I'm surprised I couldn't find a definitive answer.

      • Unaffiliated voters have been on the rise, but they (and non-participating citizens) make up a kind of unknown. Their partisan and even philosophical leanings are somewhat squishy in the polls – they might represent the radical right, the unhappy middle, or the ultra-left – or may be so varied across different issues that they don't fit any standard partisan alignment.

        For the purposes of Congressional ideology, though, they are a non-event. There are exactly two independents in Congress. One is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who claims to be a Democratic Socialist; the other is Sen. Angus King, who seems to be more of an independent Democrat and an interest (however fantastical) in overcoming party-based gridlock. The current plurality voting system precludes anything but the strongest of third-party movements from changing the two-party lock on power.

        • DavieDavie says:

          Granted, this is a 2-party system, with little room for a third.  And unless the two major parties decide to allow unafilliated voters to participate in the primary of one party or the other, the unafilliated simply become the swing voter that each party courts in the general, when it is too late to assist in picking a moderate slate that could win office to represent a wider swath of the electorate.

          We don't need a third party as much as we need to find a way to capture and hold more of the middle ground.  Although that could have the unintended effect of alienating the wingers on both sides, I suppose.

          • ohwilleke says:

            From an election law perspective, Louisiana's system (which has produced many notable moderates in Congress) with a first round open to every candidate of every party in lieu of a primary, and a second round between the two highest vote winners (unless the first round produces an outright majority rather than a mere plurality for one candidate) is the easiest way to get there.  This system, notably, is also used by Denver in its municipal candidate elections.

            • It was also implemented in California in 2012, resulting in several solid Democratic seats going to Republicans due to high Democratic candidate participation (aka splitting the vote). It has done weird things in Louisiana as well, including giving us our latest House scandal. Had Democrats not split the vote four ways in LA-05, Rep. McAllister wouldn't have made the run-off election.

              One year's elections under this system are enough to convince me that "easy" isn't right. (Additionally, the "open primary" is one of the few systems that are mathematically less fair than the plurality system.)

            • DavieDavie says:

              I would be happy to allow unaffiliated voters choose to declare for a day a preference for one party or the other, and then be allowed to vote in that primary.  While there would be some slight amount of "Caldara" mischief makers, for the most part, it would let those with sympathies for one party or the other, but not willing to make long term commitments, have a voice in selecting a candidate that reflects a broader point of view of the electorate, for each party.

              The 'non-partisan' Denver election model really doesn't scale to the national level, since Denver is solidly Democratic, so the candidates play more to personality rather than issues.  

              Do you recall any significant policy differences between Chris Romer, Michael Hancock or James Mejia?

              • dwyer says:

                @ohwilleke et. al.

                These options would all further weaken the political party system.  I think that political parties are critical to the functioning of our government, IMHO.

  5. ElliotFladenElliotFladen says:

    Re: OP – BINGO!

  6. ohwilleke says:

    I agree that redistricting isn't a particularly important factor.  In the South, the Republican party had traditionally been associated with Yankee carpetbaggers and it took Democratic Party support of the Civil Rights movement for racist white Southern Conservatives to put aside century old obsolete biases against the GOP that was no longer the liberal leaning party that it was under President Lincoln.

    The demise of liberal Republicans in the Northeast was really in reaction to realignment in the South.  As former Dixiecrats and Evangelicals secured a prominent place in the GOP, that party and its brand ceased to be a comfortable fit for Northeastern liberal Republicans and Northern Democrats were willing to expand their tent to include business friendly, social liberals.

    Put another way, federal politics became some dominant in importance relative to state politics that regional variation in political party identity and branding was no longer possible.  Partisan politicians at every level of government became wed to the potitions staked out by their caucuses in Washington D.C., rather than being free to built coalitions that migrated towards a 50-50 division at the state and local level which is what political parties would tend to do in the absence of a central federal government.

  7. kickshot says:

    Compunding the effets of redistricting and/or the shrinkage of the ideological spectrum of both parties is a right-leaning disconnect between officeholders of both ideological persuasions compared to their constituents:

    "conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by over 20 percentage points, while liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points"


  8. dwyer says:

    EXCEPT, the Republican focus on controlling state governments is how they were able to control redistrictring in 2010 in critical states.  The thrust to take power from the federal government and return it to the states is a goal that both tea partyers and moderate republicans share.   

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