01/14/2013 06:21 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Polarization in 4 Steps

Why was it so difficult to avoid the fiscal cliff? Especially when, in the end, Congress couldn't salvage a grand bargain à la Simpson-Bowles, but instead settled for a quick fix?

In a word, it's polarization -- the complete inability of our elected officials to work together for our general welfare. The deeper question is where does polarization originate and what perpetuates it at a time when constituents want Congress to compromise? (More than three-fifths of Americans -- 61 percent -- said they'd rather a politician seek compromise solutions than strictly adhere to principles, according to a Colby College-Survey USA study released last month.)

Solving the problem is more difficult than explaining its momentum, which I think I can do in four steps.

First, New York Times statistician and blogger Nate Silver had a partial explanation in a recent "FiveThirtyEight" blog post. Silver noted that, in 1992, there were 103 members of the House of Representatives elected out of swing districts (which he defined as districts in which the presidential vote was within 5 percentage points of the national tally). But today, Silver calculates that number is just 35. That means that 400 of 435 races are virtually predetermined by party affiliation. At the same time that competitive districts have diminished, landslide districts -- defined as those in which the presidential margin diverged from the national outcome by 20 or more points -- have roughly doubled. So, more and more members of Congress are being elected from hyperpartisan districts and therefore face no backlash from their constituents when they are unwilling to compromise.

Second, there is the effect of closed primaries. When those hyperpartisan districts are in states with closed primaries -- nominating contests open to only party members -- the most reliable voters in low-turnout elections tend to be those who are ideologically driven. For whom do they vote? The most conservative or most liberal candidates, whose ultimate election in November becomes virtually guaranteed once they clear the primary because the opposition party is outnumbered on Election Day. Combine hyperpartisan districts and closed primaries and you have the backdrop for an enormous ideological divide. Consider that, for the last three decades, the National Journal has sought to categorize the ideological leanings of every member of the House and Senate.

According to the National Journal, Congress was more polarized in 2010 and 2011 than at almost any other point in the last 30 years, with every Democratic senator compiling a voting record more liberal than every Republican (and vice versa). The House was similarly divided. But it hasn't always been like this. In the early 1980s, on Ronald Reagan's watch, the National Journal calculates, roughly 60 percent of the Senate was composed of moderates.

Third, there is the effect of a polarized media, itself a creation in the last three decades. This is where those ideologically driven voters who dictate the nomination process in hyperpartisan districts within closed primary states go for their news and opinion, and where the members of Congress who are elected strive to stay in good stead. Gone are the days when a successful career in Washington was dependent upon longevity in office, and corresponding seniority brought prestigious assignments.

Today, the quickest path to success is to say something incendiary, get picked up in the cable or talk-radio world, and then become a fund-raising magnet. (You know who loves that sort of attention? The ideologically driven voters who vote in primaries that nominate candidates in hyperpartisan districts within closed primary states!)

And the perceived need for constant fund-raising is the fourth contributor to polarization. In the past, members of Congress actually moved to Washington. Today, a typical residence for a member is a flophouse on Capitol Hill that is shared with an ideological twin and slept in two or three nights a week. Nobody truly lives in Washington, moves his or her family there, or enrolls children in a D.C. school. Most important, lawmakers don't socialize with colleagues. If you don't know a colleague's family, or the priorities of his or her constituents, that person is a lot easier to demonize based purely on ideology.

Joseph A. Califano Jr., an adviser to Lyndon Johnson and cabinet secretary for Jimmy Carter, has just published what he refers to as a "report" titled "What the Hell's a Presidency For? -- Making Washington Work," in which he argues that there is much to be learned from LBJ's effective leadership style, including his ability to work across the aisle, that could change modern Washington. He touched on this issue in an e-mail to me last week:

"The day after each congressional election, a no-holds-barred campaign begins for the next one. Why? Because control of each house is on the line every two years and congressional committee assignments are more important to member fund-raising than the president."

Of course, elected officials today can't afford the luxury of building working relationships with colleagues because they've got to get back home and raise money to spend in those contests in which their election is virtually assured, being held in a state with a closed primary, hoping to be featured on cable TV news.

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.