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Election Year Sees Increasingly Polarised U.S. Congress

ATLANTA, Georgia, Jun 9 2012 (IPS) - All signs are pointing to a more polarised, less moderate U.S. Congress in the near future.

These include some of the recent Congressional primary elections in states throughout the U.S.; the retirement of longtime senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine; and the decline of the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist Democrats.

A recent book, “The Last Great Senate” by Ira Shapiro, reminisces about decades past such as the 1970s and 1980s where Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate seemed better able to work together for the good of the country.

“The pattern that has been present since the 1930s where you had a big conservative element in the Democratic Party and a big moderate element in the Republican Party, those days are pretty well gone,” Randall Strahan, a professor of political science at Emory University, told IPS.

Now, “the parties are more consistent in their programmatic and ideological views. It’s unrealistic to think any time in the near future partisan conflict will go away,” he said.

But Strahan argues that it is not entirely a bad thing.

“Some people say partisan conflict turns off voters. The evidence is just the opposite; hotly contested politics turns out voters. It (polarisation) clarifies choices for voters. When you have a Democratic Party all over the map, conservative segregationists in the South and liberals in the North, it’s very ambiguous when you vote for a Democrat what that means,” he said.

In fact, a highly polarised U.S. Congress has been typical throughout U.S. history, with the last several decades of moderation as the anomaly, Strahan said.

The conservative Tea Party celebrated last month when Thomas Massie, a Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for U.S. House in Kentucky, won the Republican primary there. He is expected to win in November’s general election.

Massie was backed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican with libertarian ideology, also from Kentucky, who is attempting to strengthen the Tea Party Caucus. Rand Paul is the son of Representative Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican who has served Texas in the U.S. House for decades and ran for president multiple times. Rep. Paul is retiring this year.

Currently, there are four U.S. senators and 62 U.S. House members who are part of the Tea Party Caucus, including Senator Paul, as well as Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah, and Jerry Moran of Kansas, all Republicans.

Another Tea Party-backed candidate, Richard Murdoch, created a big upset last month when he defeated Senator Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican from Indiana.

Murdoch may have a difficult time winning in the general election. He faces U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana, this November, and the polls are currently tied.

On the left, progressive Democrats have made a some inroads by defeating moderate Democratic incumbents.

In late April 2012, Matt Cartwright and Rep. Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, progressive Democrats, defeated Tim Holden and Rep. Jason Altmire, centrist Democrats, respectively.

But progressive Democrats have not done well in all their races this year. State Senator Eric Griego, a progressive Democrat from New Mexico who had received the support of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, lost to a centrist Democrat earlier this week.

And U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a progressive Democrat from Ohio who made multiple runs for president of the U.S., was ousted from his Congressional seat by a moderate Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, in March. They had been redistricted to run against each other this year.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) currently has 73 voting U.S. House members, two non-voting House embers, and one U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont.

The CPC is likely to gain senators this year, as CPC members U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii are both running for open Senate seats.

The Progressive Caucus and Tea Party Caucus are currently about the same size.

However, the once powerful Blue Dog Coalition (BDC), a group of centrist Democrats in the U.S. House, is seeing its members dwindling.

The Blue Dog Coalition’s membership was nearly cut in half in the 2010 election, in which 28 out of 54 members were defeated or chose not to run again.

The group’s membership is now down to 27 with the resignation of Rep. Jane Harman, a centrist Democrat from California. Rep. Janice Hahn was elected to fill the vacancy, and Hahn is now a member of the CPC.

Several of the remaining BDC members have said they will not run again; others, like Atmire and Holden, have already been defeated in Primaries.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, the last remaining white Democrat in the U.S. south, and a BDC moderate, has been targeted for defeat by Republicans this year.

David Swanson, an activist who has supported numerous progressive candidates for Congress in the past, says that while he sees increasing polarisation in the legislature, overall, he believes Congress is moving to the right.

“I buy the right-warding of Congress, not necessarily the left-warding of Congress,” Swanson told IPS.

“I’m thrilled to have Rand Paul putting locks on measures that would start wars with Iran, regardless of what ideologies that’s coming from,” he added.

“You see a handful of liberals taking positions against wars and presidential power abuses, but not enough to make a real difference,” he said.

And he said that, despite partisan gridlock on many issues such as the federal budget, he sees Congress largely working together.

“When it comes to increasing military spending every goddamn year, enlarged war powers, letting presidents make lists of who they want to murder, sanctions on Iran… refusing to raise the minimum wage or protect the rights to organise or clean out the money and undo Citizens United, there’s pretty large bipartisan agreement,” he said.

The landmark and controversial Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission overturned longstanding election finance laws and permitted unlimited spending by corporations in elections.

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