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Dire Data: When Voters Begin to Act Like Politicians

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Politicians like data. But trends are a different story -- harder to confuse and more difficult to misapply, trends can spell out dire predictions for even the most data-toting politicians. And today's trends reveal a most moribund frontier in congressional deal-making: the end of moderate politics.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently disclosed some trends that should both flatter and concern our elected officials. It seems that despite the increasing frustration with Washington, D.C., voters are actually listening to politicians.

Before our elected officials jump for joy, however, those who identify as moderates should excuse themselves from the celebration. Moderates' messages are not leaving a lasting impression on voters; instead, voters are internalizing the rhetoric of more extreme candidates. Pew reports that 43 percent of registered Republicans hold "very unfavorable" views of their Democratic counterparts, while 38 percent of Democrats hold "very unfavorable" views of Republicans. This is in stark contrast with Pew's findings ten years ago, where only 17 percent of Republicans held "very unfavorable" views of Democrats, and 16 percent of Democrats thought the same of Republicans. In short, voters are growing disdainful of those individuals with whom they disagree. In merely a decade, the number of Americans who see the opposition party in a substantially negative light has more than doubled.

Pew also asked those individuals who reported harboring "very unfavorable" views of the countervailing political party whether "the [opposing] party's policies are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being." Nearly 27 percent of Democrats who were asked this question answered in the affirmative, as did 36 percent of Republicans.

It is important to recall that on a larger scale, this merely reveals that 10.3 percent of Democrats feel that Republicans "threaten the nation's well-being." Likewise, this sentiment is shared by 15.5 percent of Republican Party members. While these represent veritable minorities within each party, this data is distressing in a world in which trends matter. Revealed is a changing political landscape in which increasing portions of the electorate not only disagree with their political opponents, but also feel fundamentally unsafe with the potential ramifications of their opponents' decisions.

This reality is wholly discomfiting. It paints a very sobering picture -- more and more Americans have convinced themselves that compromising with their political adversaries is not just unwise, but actually dangerous. Such a disposition is more than unproductive; it is downright alienating. Nuanced political deals require consensus and compromise, both of which are predicated on mutual trust. But consensus is a dying breed. If this trend means anything, it's that Americans will continue to elect politicians who are wary of consenting to the ideas of their political counterparts.

Growing partisan fear is a trend that should comfort no one -- especially moderates, who already stand on increasingly insecure ground. Numerous studies have shown that the halls of Congress are populated with more and more hardliners. Redistricting in tandem with winner-take-all primaries mean that many political races are fought and won by extreme candidates long before the general election.

It seems that voters have taken years' worth of partisan vitriol to heart. Finally, the most extreme voices really ring the loudest. This promises, at least for the foreseeable future, continual gridlock on major substantive issues -- the very issues candidates will use to build their platforms in years to come.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone following contemporary politics in the United States. It is equally obvious that gridlock will not encourage voters to exit their polarized camps. Given that voters respond well to antagonistic messaging, they will continue to elect men and women who most stringently communicate their refusal to compromise with the boogeyman. This is especially true in local elections, where partisan voters are the only ones who make it to the polls.

It would be far too gracious, however, to credit politicians with changing the face of the offices they occupy. Instead, many political scientists point to a far more profound -- and pervasive -- reason to believe that Pew will report only widening gulfs between camps of voters: People are developing increasingly homogeneous lifestyles. Likeminded individuals watch likeminded news channels before they talk to their likeminded neighbors. Twitter, Google and Facebook all strategically filter news so that only appealing stories come into view. While voters might respond to the degrading imprecations politicians cast upon one another, the factors underpinning their behavior are far more banal.

In this sense, while the Pew survey seems to show that voters respond to political rhetoric, the survey actually reminds us that politicians, as mirrors of their constituents, are still reflective of the communities they represent. The difference is that the communities represented in Congress are not nearly as different as they once were. In moving apart, voters have slowly made previously disparate communities uniform. The sociology of a community -- whether urban or rural -- is more likely to demarcate differences within the GOP, for example, than geographic differences alone. A rural district in Oklahoma shares many more concerns with a rural district in Georgia than it did a few election cycles ago.

Still, if the causes of increasing partisanship are multifaceted, the impacts are a bit more straightforward. There still remains a cohort of members of Congress who identify as moderate, but their numbers are waning -- and fast. For example, the Blue Dog Democratic Caucus, a House caucus comprised of self-styled "fiscally conservative Democrats," lost almost half of their membership in the last midterm election alone. Now with only 19 members left, the Blue Dogs might be finished, at least if the numbers from Pew have their way. The Cook Political Report corroborates this forecast; the decline of competitive districts that encourage moderation means that there will be fewer moderate members of Congress to join caucuses like the Blue Dogs in future years.

Caucuses like the Blue Dogs have survived in large part due to the adage often attributed to Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local." In other words, partisanship isn't absolute -- candidates for congressional offices can still defy national trends and the limitations of the party brand. But even that time-tested maxim is beginning to look outdated. This is evidenced by the GOP's strategy in the upcoming 2014 midterms. The party of states' rights has remained decidedly national in their focus, while Democrats have tried to emphasize the importance of local issues. Should Republicans take back the Senate, it would demonstrate the increasing strength of national party brands in this new partisan era. It is for this reason that the upcoming midterm elections are so incredibly important -- they stand to reveal which strategy carries the most clout, and what that strategy spells for moderate politics.

But some short-run issues indicate that all is not lost. The nation's ongoing debate over immigration showcases just the type of issue that will challenge political parties to cater to various types of voters. In fact, the outcome of internal quibbles within the Republican Party over this very issue might provide an answer. As Latino voters quickly prove to constitute a formidable force in national politics, some Republicans -- eager to prove that they no longer respond exclusively to the will of an aging white establishment -- hope to compromise with Democrats on immigration reform. Not all Republicans share this sentiment, but interestingly, the national party might be far more concerned with its reception by Latino voters than local party branches and Republican candidates are.

Journalists and pundits alike have commented that, with immigration, the GOP is at a crossroads. Either Republicans will give in to the Tea Party's hardline stance on immigration or alter their position to attract Latino voters who may already be allured by other parts of the Republicans' platform. The Republicans' fate lies in which fork they take, or if the party can successfully mediate between the two. The pressure gives hope that moderation may come, as the right considers moves to make room for an electorate that will simply not accept the GOP's monolithic politics on immigration.

If homogeneity seems to spell certain death for moderate politics, diversity is host to a type of dissonance that spurs moderate politics. As the issue of immigration reveals, diversity remains moderation's last stand. So long as political parties are steered towards extremism, the nation might succumb to the bifurcated political landscape hiding just underneath the data. While shoe-in local races might not display these conflicts outright, their victors will certainly have to reconcile themselves with this force come their arrival on Capitol Hill. But as long as extreme partisan elements control the political landscape, once-mighty moderates may as well enjoy their waning days in Washington.

This post initially appeared in the Brown Political Review, Brown University's entirely student-written and student-run nonpartisan magazine for political journalism.