Throughout the boom, the nation's fragile political consensus was held together by the glue of prosperity. When the federal coffers swung from deficits to surpluses, Washington politicians were free to extol the magic of the marketplace and the dazzle of deregulation. Their spats were mostly about where to spend the new abundance. Now the surplus is evaporating, and Republicans and Democrats are back to their dreary game of finger-pointing ("It's Bill Clinton's recession"), scaremongering ("George Bush's tax cut will bankrupt retirement programs"), and spewing personal invective ("Jim Jeffords is a traitor").
Should you care that the politicians are back-biting again? Absolutely. While the Bush Administration has racked up some impressive wins during its first seven months, the fissures in the political system are becoming ever clearer. If the nearly yearlong slump turns into something more virulent--say, a deep recession that pulls the world economy down--concerted action by Washington may be elusive. Just as the heady days of the recent past united much of the country in a quest for all the trappings of easy wealth--supersize sport-utility vehicles, TVs as big as a football field, cell phones that do your laundry--so will the specter of economic misfortune and overdue bills create further gaps in a country already splitting along geographic, social, religious, and racial lines.
LOOKING FOR A HERO. In short, America is entering the new century as a nation divided. Nothing illustrates that better than Election 2000. On one end of the political-fragmentation spectrum are die-hard Democrats buoyed by Al Gore's winning of the popular vote; on the other, charged-up conservative Republicans who regard Bush's victories in 30 states as a vindication of their vision for America. Each represents roughly a third of the electorate. But there is a vast swath of swing voters that isn't satisfied with either political party and is grasping for a champion to back--be it Ross Perot, John McCain, or Ralph Nader.
While elected officials cater to their partisan fringes, it's folks in the middle--economically conservative, socially libertarian people like Senator Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.)--who are becoming alienated from the system. "I think McCain has his finger on the pulse of something," says James M. Davin, 55, chief executive of Davin Capital Corp., a privately held New York investment company. "I'm getting sick of the political parties. In an attempt to define themselves, they take extreme positions on controversial topics."
The country's demographic divide only serves to exacerbate the problem. Essentially, the U.S. is now split into New Economy suburbs and rural backwaters, a development that has produced a red-zone/blue-zone political map where the two populations ask entirely different things from government--and vote in diametrically opposite ways. Meanwhile, the number of citizens who don't bother to vote at all continues to increase.
To complicate matters, a values divide now separates neighbor from neighbor: Roughly even numbers of people want government to focus on quality-of-life concerns and social tolerance; an equal and opposite bloc favors a values agenda that emphasizes religious faith and cultural purification. Then there are the swing voters who want government to stay out of their lives and their businesses--while keeping monied special interests at bay. These ticket-splitters often choose candidates based on personal character or policy stands, such as environmentalism or school reform, rather than party affiliation.
The result: Not only is the task of getting elected to national office becoming hellishly complicated but any pol who somehow manages the trick also faces the arduous task of forging a governing consensus. Just ask George W. Bush, the 48% President. Indeed, governing in the era of the New Economy is as volatile as day-trading through the dot-com crash. Talk about riding high in April, shot down in May--look at the Senate. There, an obscure Vermonter set off a seismic shift with a simple declaration of independence from the Republican Party. Overnight, the political equation in Washington shifted dramatically.
There's a good reason why American democracy is suffering from compound fractures in this New Economy era. In Old Economy politics, social scientists had a relatively easy time predicting American voting patterns. If you were wealthy, well-educated, or a white Protestant, you were likely to be a Republican. If you were a working stiff, without a college degree, the children or grandchildren of immigrants, Catholic or Jewish, chances are you would pick Democrats.
COLLISION COURSE. When it comes to partisan politics, the U.S. is more evenly divided than at any time since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. However, the way it is split is fundamentally different. While income and education once were the best predictors of voting behavior, the electorate now breaks along cultural and geographical lines. Minority-dominated cities and increasingly diverse inner suburbs are on a collision course with fast-growing, largely white "exurbs" and culturally conservative rural areas.
But the new pattern is not clean and neat. That's because swing voters live everywhere and can't be pigeonholed by their demographic characteristics. Marilyn K. Miller, 63, is CEO of Personnel Evaluations Inc., a Skokie (Ill.) company that conducts background checks on job applicants. Why did this small-business executive vote for Democrat Al Gore for President but Republican Mark S. Kirk for Congress? "I feel that no party is perfect," Miller says. "Until I get into the voting booth, I'm not positive how I'm going to vote."
The decline in partisan loyalty has been occurring gradually over the past 30 years, abetted by the passing of big-city machine mayors like "Boss" Richard Daley of Chicago and Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia. Remaining party support comes from a hard core of loyalists balkanized along ideological, racial, ethnic, and religious lines. The rise of powerful special-interest groups--from gay activists to gun owners to environmentalists to anti-abortion crusaders--has built figurative fences between fellow citizens. And the national comity has suffered as voters have begun defining themselves through their special interests first.
In post-boom America, cultural questions form a dividing line: Do you own a gun? Two-thirds of gun owners voted for Bush. Do you attend religious services more than once a week? By a margin of nearly 2-1, these people backed Bush. Do you believe abortion should be legal? Seventy percent of those voters sided with Gore. Do you favor gay rights? If so, Gore was your candidate--overwhelmingly. If you believe government should do more, you were three times as likely to back Gore. If you want government out of your lives, you favored Bush by a like margin.
Meanwhile, the geography of American politics has undergone a dramatic transformation. The solid Democratic South of the past has become a Republican bastion at the Presidential level. (One exception: Florida, where a wave of new residents is weakening the GOP's grip.) The formerly rock-ribbed Republican states of the Northeast have moved toward the Democratic column. And the West Coast, for decades a pivotal region, has become a key component of any national Democratic victory. Essentially, the Democrats control the two coasts, and the GOP is in command of the American heartland.
A new kind of geographical determinism has emerged. Megaplex cities--many of which gained population as a result of immigration and urban gentrification by young professionals--are becoming steadily more Democratic. In the past year alone, Democrats recaptured control of mayor's jobs in cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Jersey City.
Democrats also have made major gains in the inner suburbs that ring most large cities. These sprawling tracts draw city dwellers and immigrants seeking good schools and relatively low crime rates. They are also a haven for citizens who enjoy racial and cultural diversity--and they are becoming increasingly Democratic.
Republicans have an upper hand in the outer suburbs and the newly developed former farmland called exurbs. These overwhelmingly white areas, such as California's conservative Central Valley, are home to some of the largest Protestant congregations in the country.
Beyond the outer reaches of the New Economy, rural and small-town America has been transformed from being politically competitive, based on economic distinctions, to becoming solidly Republican, based on social issues such as guns and abortion. "There's a perception that Democrats ultimately want to take every gun away from everybody," says House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
TUG-OF-WAR. With the parties at parity, Republicans and Dems are desperately searching for ways to gain even a slight advantage--often by finding feel-good issues designed to lure voters in the center. Republicans preach compassion, something called "the new environmentalism," and swear they'll "leave no child behind" when it comes to education. Democrats yammer about the virtues of erasing the national debt, preserving the Medicare "lockbox," and the need to keep the budget in surplus.
The impasse is likely to prompt new rounds of negative television commercials--and make mincemeat of Bush's pleas for "a new tone in Washington." Says GOP demographer John Morgan: "We're in for trouble in terms of civility. [The parties] are really playing for keeps now."
There's a big problem inherent in this politics of division: It's very difficult to build policy consensus once an election is over. Even though centrist swing voters want elected officials to stop the bickering and get things done, politicians are pulled to the extremes by interest-group demands, the dictates of congressional commissars, and the tug of campaign contributors.
This polarized political model is unlikely to change until a McCain--or some other anti-Establishment reformer--shakes up the status quo. But a crucial component of such a reform drive--limiting unregulated "soft money" in campaigns--is in deep trouble from entrenched powers in both parties. Unless the nation's "radical centrists" unite, at the ballot box and in legislative chambers, divide-and-conquer government seems here to stay. That means change will be measured in microns, not yards. And public frustration with New Economy politics will only grow.
By Richard S. Dunham
With Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago