Research published in this month's edition of American Politics Research has shown a new dimension to something a lot of people have suspected for some time: the increasing polarization of American electoral politics. Looking at political campaign contributions, the authors show that the proportion of donors who are ideologically motivated increases sharply starting in 2002 - roughly the point where internet fund-raising gains traction.
Interestingly, the authors also try to get at the chicken-and-egg problem of what changed first: the polarization of Washington, increasing ideological identities among voters, or the rise of "ideological money"? As their title suggests, it's not the money, or even the voters: it's Washington. There is an empirical argument to be made here that an increase in partisanship in Washington has driven both a more polarized electorate (I would argue, by driving non-ideological voters away, but that's not covered in this article) and by attracting more ideologically-charged money, which in turn leads to more tribally shrill election communications.
It's not hard to imagine the timeline behind all of this. The late 1990s saw a partisan attack on a sitting President for no purpose other than to "get the other side". The fishing expedition that led to President Clinton's impeachment and ultimate exoneration in the Senate was founded in nothing other than the desire of a group of tribal Republicans who simply couldn't stand the Clintons, or Democrats in general for that matter.
From that debacle, it's a short leap to the contested election of 2000, the rapid destruction of post-9/11 bipartisan unity, and the ongoing and increasingly vicious (and irrelevant) "culture wars" that are used as rallying flags for our political tribes. Even relatively minor issues that otherwise foster agreement - the current spat over student loan interest rates comes to mind - become battlegrounds for our political tribesmen in Washington.
The big picture, apparently, is that Washington is driving the politics of the nation rather than the other way around. Regardless of which your favorite party is, this should strike us all as fundamentally wrong. It reduces citizenship to the level of the sports fan: we root for our team, we buy their t-shirts and bumper stickers, we are happy when they win and sad when they lose. We're not participants; we're spectators.
Offhand, I can't think of an obvious way out. If what we need is to get our "leaders" and "representatives" in Washington to shut up for a while and listen to us, rather than telling us what to think (and what to think about), voting is a pointless exercise. If the research by Raja and Wiltse is correct, candidates who want to break out of the tribal mold are going to have a hard time raising money, and are going to be outspent by tribalists like Indiana's Richard Mourdock who can raise money from like-minded people all across the country. Lacking easy solutions, I have only this observation: this isn't the way it's supposed to work.