University public policy professor. "In the exurbs (outer edges of suburbs),
that leaves more white, more conservative, more religious people."
The connection to Congress? These areas become parts of House districts that lean so far to one party or the other that they amount to "homogenous echo chambers," in the words of Ornstein, co-author of a new book on Congress called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."
Finally, there's the rise of a political media, which stokes partisan passions on a daily basis. For Republicans, there's radio talker Rush Limbaugh and Fox News with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity; for Democrats, it's MSNBC with Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell.
A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Fox and MSNBC got more extreme in the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign, with spikes in attacks on Romney (by MSNBC) and Obama (by Fox).
Instead of counseling civility and compromise in the House and Senate, Ornstein says, these ratings-driven hosts have demonstrated that "in this culture, screaming is OK and there's no punishment for lies."
Also keeping the parties at the extremes: money. It's always played a major role in determining who gets to Congress -- and how they vote. But, in recent years, more campaign cash has come from groups with partisan and ideological goals.
"Money comes from the activist wings of the parties," says Sarah Binder, a George Washington University professor with an expertise in Congress.
Rather than contributing to a congressional candidate's campaign, some outside groups with fat wallets will buy their own TV ads attacking that candidate's opponent. With the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, there are few limits any more on how much they can spend.
And if a member of Congress doesn't toe the ideological line, groups that give money can also take it away and redirect it to a primary election challenger.
"If there's a Democrat (in Congress) who is willing to talk about compromise involving appropriate cuts in the entitlement programs so that they are sustainably solvent, the AARP or the AFL will run somebody in the primary and fund them pretty heavily to beat him or her," says Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. "And in one of these all-Republican districts, if there's a Republican who wants to express support for reforming the tax code and raising revenue, then Grover Norquist (head of Americans for Tax Reform) ... will go out and raise money to run somebody against him or her."
This looming threat of being "primaryed," as it's now called, has led to more members of Congress clinging to the extreme left or extreme right, Bowles says, "and so there's fewer people in what I would call the sensible center. That makes it harder to get something done today than it used to be."
What others said
--"Now, when you go interview a Democratic House member, all they say is 'Well, I saw that Rachel said this, Rachel said that.' And if you go interview a Republican, it's 'Well, O'Reilly said this or Rush said that.' But (these hosts') interest isn't in making deals (on Capitol Hill). Their interest is to have a sort of economic culture war." -- New York Times columnist David Brooks
--"They just don't tolerate any moderates in their party anymore." -- U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., speaking of Republicans
--"Where is their middle now? The Blue Dogs (moderate Democrats in Congress) are down." -- U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., speaking of Democrats
What can you do to make a difference?
Don't be part of the problem by expecting your representative to deliver all gain and no pain.
"People want to have their cake and eat it, too -- they want to have low taxes and high spending. You can't have both," says New York Times columnist David Brooks. "A lot of it is a problem with the followers."
Practice what you preach to politicians.
"Don't just blame Washington," says the Rev. Doug Tanner, senior adviser to the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington. "(You) need to be more fully engaged in finding common ground and communicating to (your) leaders to do the same."
Understand that deal-making in Washington can get messy.
"The public sees the bargaining, the game of chicken," says Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte. "Even if (lawmakers) reach agreement at the end, the public is so turned off by the process that they kind of dismiss the results."
Own your power to change Washington.
"We're so passive," says Mark Erwin, a former ambassador in the Clinton administration. "ââ‚¬‰'Oh. It's terrible,' we say, then flip the channel and go to a football game."
Instead, says former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., "Let (politicians) know that if they don't vote sensibly. ... Their jobs are in jeopardy."
And dig into the issues -- knowledge is power, too. Adds Spratt: "We've got to have an electorate that understands what needs to be done."
If you want members of Congress to reach across party lines, reward them when they do -- and punish them when they don't.
"We need to elect candidates who are willing to compromise, who are willing to listen, who are not just advocating ideological solutions to problems," says UNCC's Eric Heberlig. "Look for (candidates) who are problem solvers first and ideologues second. Right now, it's the opposite: We're electing ideologues who are good at articulating our grievances but less good about actually doing anything or compromising something to have decent solutions to those grievances."
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