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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Narrow Majorities, Mean Majorities

Almost everyone I hearing talking about politics agrees that it is somehow meaner, nastier, and generally tougher than it used to be. Generally, I tend to dismiss such observations. Very few people actually know how politics works today - much less how it worked years ago. Comparing campaigns doesn't seem very valuable, either - after all, how much can you learn from comparing the campaigns of Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, and George W. Bush (or even Bill Clinton)? Technology, party structure, the literacy rate among adults, and countless other factors tend to render such comparisons invalid. Besides, how do we know that George Washington didn't consider John Adams to be a pompous ass or a sissified townie or maybe just fat and ugly?

But still, in my brief life span, I believe politics has become meaner. The first Presidential debate I remember seeing was Carter-Reagan and, though I can't find any text to link to the commentary that followed, I do remember hearing people comment about how rude Reagan was to Carter, how dismissive he was of the office Carter represented. "There you go again," was a crippling blow to Carter's reality-based campaign style, but it was also a slash at the veneer of civility that had marked Carter and Ford's debates.

Of course, coming from Texas, I simply can't talk about politics getting meaner without contrasting Lloyd Bentsen with Phil Gramm. Although they were contemporaries, I think they stand fairly well as a staple of what has passed - the gentility of Bentsen - and a template of what has come - the sharp-tongued thinly-veiled contempt of Gramm. Compare what is considered the essence of Lloyd Bentson:
I have never forgotten my days as an Eagle Scout. I didn't know it at the time, but what really came out of my Scouting was learning how to lead and serve the community. It has come in handy in my career in government.

with the essence of Phil Gramm:

He regularly jokes about his reputation for being mean. He cites the evident affection of his wife, his staff and his dog. And at least once he told a dinner audience that he really did have a heart, adding after the requisite pause, "I keep it in a quart jar on my desk."


But to simply say that we are meaner is to simply whine that we should be a kinder, gentler nation without giving any specific recommendations as to how we should accomplish that goal. It is to say, "We need to be better people," which is true, but not very helpful. A prerequisite for any recommendation must be some grounding in evidence. To that end, I present you with my hypothesis:

Politics is growing meaner because the ruling mandate - the difference between being a majority party and being a minority party - is, in historical terms, razor thin. This raises the stakes for every vote and for every politician. It also forces partisan differences to the fore.

Currently, in the House of Representatives, the Republicans hold a thirty-seat majority (232-202). In statistical terms, they hold 53.3% of the House. This is actually the strongest majority mustered by the Republicans since they gained control of the House in 1995 (elections in 1994). To find a time when the Democrats had such a slender majority, you must travel all the way back to 1955, when they held only 232 seats.(You can look at the raw data here.)

If we examine the history of Congress since 1913, when the 435 seat arrangement first appeared, you will find very few times when a majority party held less than 55% of the seats. 13 Congresses out of 47 have had a majority of less than 55% - that includes the six consecutive slender-majority Congresses since the 104th took office in 1995. The average majority is 58.6% and the median (right in the middle) is 56.8%.

It is also true in Presidential elections. George W. Bush won 53% of the popular vote - the highest percentage since Ronald Reagan won 58% in 1984. But Reagan, and Carter before him, barely managed to break 50%. It has to be noted, though, that Presidential elections are historically much more competitive than the Congressional majority. If we examine the popular vote since 1912, Woodrow Wilson failed to gain 50% of the vote in two successive elections. However, no winning candidate failed to reach that mark again until Harry Truman won with only 49.6% in 1948. The next was Kennedy, who won with 49.3% in 1960 , and Richard Nixon, who won with 43.4% in 1968. The pattern suggests a growing trend for narrow decisions. (Information taken from Wikipedia pages.)

From Wilson to Truman, there were seven Presidential elections with clear majorities. Between Truman and Kennedy, there were two (Eisenhower won them both). Johnson won over 60% of the votes in 1964 between the narrow elections of Kennedy and Nixon. Since Nixon's re-election in 1972, though, only one candidate has pulled in more than 55% of the vote.

With a majority status comes great power to determine the direction of the government. Quite simply, the stakes cannot be higher in electoral politics. With a large Congressional majority and a Presidential mandate, the majority party can afford to be somewhat magnanimous with minority party members that play along with their rules. With a slender majority, that luxury must be put away. The minority becomes more fully shut-out of government, which makes that party more hostile to the majority party. If one party holds both a slender Presidential mandate and a slender Congressional majority; then there is simply no room to set aside partisanship. Minority party members are still welcomed to assist the majority, but it is the terms set by the majority. Thus, Joe Lieberman sounds too much like a Republican because he wants to have input, and he is pulled to the right by the majority by his desire. That makes him the Republicans favorite Democrat.

Of course, elections are only ten months away, so we shall see how the Congressional majority changes. If it strengthens the Republican majority; then there will likely be a slight softening of attitude towards Democrats. If Democrats get a slender majority, then expect them to dig in and fight the President hard and dirty. If Democrats can somehow manage a significant majority; then they can still fight the President, but they can afford to be a bit nicer about it.

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