Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and author of "Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics," and "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America." Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
John Avlon will be on tonight to discuss the stimulus program, the Obama Administration's agenda and what we can expect from the President's State of the Union address tomorrow. Read this excerpt from his book.
The Rise of Independents
The future lies with those wise political leaders who realize that the great public is interested more in Government than in politics . . . The growing independence of voters, after all, has been proven by the votes in every Presidential election since my childhood—and the tendency, frankly, is on the increase.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940
In the more than sixty years since FDR predicted the rise of independence in the American electorate, analysis of congressional voting records shows that Washington has grown more polarized, driven by ideology and disdaining compromise, than at any time in the recent past.
This trend has especially been on the increase since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and continued to grow with the anti-Clinton fervor of the 1994 Newt Gingrich–led Republican Revolution. As columnist George Will has written: "Some ideologically intoxicated Republicans think Democrats are not merely mistaken but sinful . . . Some Democrats, having lost their ideological confidence, substitute character assassination for political purpose."
This polarization has been cemented by redistricting—creating safe congressional seats for incumbents to occupy without the built-in check and balance of a credible opposition candidate. Currently, 90 percent of congressional seats are considered "safe." Once upon a time in America, people chose their congressmen; now congressmen choose their people.
As Congress has grown more partisan, however, the electorate has grown steadily more Centrist, with the number of self-identified moderates rising from a bare plurality of 36 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 1998 and 2000. At the same time, the number of Americans who are reluctant to identify themselves completely with either political party has been steadily rising.
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