Incivility’s victims: Evan Bayh, and a functioning Senate

We can’t know all the reasons why centrist Democrat Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) decided not to run for re-election, but his recent op-ed essay in the New York Times was a stunning indictment of the incivility and dysfunction of the U.S. Senate:

There are many causes for the dysfunction: strident partisanship, unyielding ideology, a corrosive system of campaign financing, gerrymandering of House districts, endless filibusters, holds on executive appointees in the Senate, dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.

In the rest of the essay, Bayh points to two of the main causes that we at CivilPolitics have been discussing. First, the necessity of strengthening interpersonal relationships BEFORE discussing areas of disagreement. As Bayh says:

When I was a boy, members of Congress from both parties, along with their families, would routinely visit our home for dinner or the holidays. This type of social interaction hardly ever happens today and we are the poorer for it. It is much harder to demonize someone when you know his family or have visited his home. Today, members routinely campaign against each other, raise donations against each other and force votes on trivial amendments written solely to provide fodder for the next negative attack ad. It’s difficult to work with members actively plotting your demise. Any improvement must begin by changing the personal chemistry among senators. More interaction in a non-adversarial atmosphere would help.

Second, Bayh advocates a variety of structural and institutional reforms which would change the dynamic among Senators and facilitate cooperation. He specifically mentions campaign finance reform and other ways to allow Senators to spend less time fundraising; and reducing the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster from 60 to 55 (just as the number was reduced from 67 to 60 in 1975).

So much of the rise in partisan rancor has been due to the “big sort” that began in the 1970s as conservative democrats moved to the Republican party, and as liberal or even moderate Republicans got voted out everywhere but the extreme Northeast and Northwest corners of the country. The two parties are now relatively ideologically pure, which makes party into a more perfectly moral divide. The loss of any of the few remaining centrist politicians is a blow to civility and a loss to the nation.

—Jon Haidt