Evan Bayh’s announcement that he will not seek reelection to the U.S. Senate has triggered much journalistic handwringing about the baleful consequences of political polarization, as did Arlen Specter’s abandonment of the GOP last spring. But Specter’s defection owed more to naked opportunism than to his ideological grievances with Republicans. As for Bayh, in the media’s rush to blame his exit on a toxic political culture, the Indiana Democrat’s vaunted bipartisanship has been exaggerated, and the roots of Washington gridlock have been misconstrued.
Explaining his decision to MSNBC, Bayh cited excessive partisanship and complained that the system has become “dysfunctional.” The former chair of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, he holds moderate or right-leaning positions on various economic, cultural, and national-security issues. Yet his Senate record has been heavily shaped by his White House ambitions.
In January 2005, for example, Bayh was among the 13 Democratic caucus members who voted against confirming Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. Later that year, he was one of only 22 senators (all Democrats) to oppose the Supreme Court confirmation of John Roberts. In early 2006, Bayh joined 40 other Democratic caucus members (and Republican Lincoln Chafee) in voting against the confirmation of Sam Alito. Though he cosponsored the Iraq War resolution in 2002, Bayh opposed the 2007 troop surge.
“He’s with the Democrats when it matters,” says a senior GOP Senate aide. “I’ve never seen him as Mr. Bipartisan.” Bayh is skeptical of cap-and-trade legislation, and he voted against both of the omnibus spending bills that President Obama signed in 2009. But he sided with Democrats on the economic-stimulus package and health-care reform, which were the year’s two biggest votes.
The moralistic lamentations that greeted Bayh’s retirement statement were utterly predictable — and utterly futile. A polarized political system may be regrettable, but long-term trends have guaranteed that it’s here to stay. The two parties are just far more ideologically homogeneous than they were 25 years ago, to say nothing of 50 years ago. As Jonathan Chait of The New Republic points out, the old political order — in which Goldwater conservatives and Rockefeller liberals shared the GOP while southern segregationists and northern progressives shared the Democratic party — “was the residue of a racial apartheid system that no longer exists.”
Would it be easier to enact major legislation if the two parties were more ideologically diverse? Perhaps. But political scientists Alan Abramowitz of Emory and Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University have found that “the high level of ideological polarization evident among political elites in the United States reflects real divisions within the American electorate.” To be sure, there is an ongoing debate over how deeply the electorate is polarized. But according to Abramowitz and Saunders, the evidence suggests that polarization would actually increase if more Americans took a fervent interest in national politics: “It is mainly the least interested, least informed, and least politically active members of the public who are clustered near the center of the ideological spectrum. The most interested, informed, and active citizens are much more polarized in their political views.”
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.