It is August. And that means that it is time to prepare to compete.
It has become a modern tradition. Each year during the month of August the intensity reaches a fever pitch. Sweat pours from the brow of those preparing to enter the fray. The coaching is intense from those who will never, themselves, challenge the opposition face-to-face. To them the rules are irrelevant. Rather, it is winning at all costs. Of course, I am referring to the August Congressional recess.
While we have long been accustomed to a rhythm of the political year that revolved around budget deadlines and the campaign season in election years, we must now add the sultry month of August as a crucial component of the political calendar. When did August become the month for an annual round of bloody, full contact politics? Clearly, according to many, we have the TEA Party to thank for that, along with the continued evolution of non-competitive districts for the United States House of Representatives.
The combination of these two phenomena added to a more intense than normal antipathy for an incumbent President has produced a transition in this month once given to downtime in the world of politics. August once allowed those who represented us in Washington the leisure time to “press the flesh,” eat the last of the season’s watermelons and admire the jellies, pickles and livestock at a series of county fairs.
In the summer of 2009, however, we observed the maturation of the TEA Party into a fully-armed political fighting force. All across the nation this group of true believers on the political far right lay in wait for the return to the districts of those sent to Washington. In that summer we witnessed the height of confrontational town hall meetings and public demonstrations the likes of which we had not seen since the anti-war movement of the 1970s.
August has become the month of access for citizens and the time of face-to-face accounting to the base of support for those who represent them. The TEA Party has brought an intensity and a demand to avoid compromise at all costs to the front of the room.
At the same time, decades of increasingly technical redistricting efforts have, in many districts, served to purify the political base to the point that the party of the majority in a district is rarely if ever in doubt. With the threat from the opposite party minimized the danger to Congressional incumbents centers on the degree of adherence to the purist in the party base.
Nate Silver, who came to our attention for his uncanny accuracy during the 2012 Presidential election, perhaps best describes this scenario. Silver stated in a New York Times article that in 1992 there were 103 out of the 435 House districts that were competitive between the Democratic and Republican parties. Now he estimates that only 35 out of 435 are competitive between the two parties. By the same token, Silver shows that those districts that are certain victories for one or the other party have increased from 123 (65 Democratic and 58 Republican) in 1992 to 242 (117 Democratic and 125 Republican) today.
This combination of TEA Party fervor and the lessening need to even think in bi-partisan fashion has produced an environment for summer vacation that is fast becoming a dicey situation. The fact that the TEA Party in Republican districts and to a lesser extent liberal groups in Democratic districts insist on broaching no compromise makes the fear of a fractured base and a primary challenge arising out of one’s own party a more salient fear than the old-timey inter-party rivalry.
In a sense, just as is the case with thousands of football teams laboring against each other in the hot August sun, September will bring about the real contests. Major battles loom over the budget and/or continuing resolutions, the debt ceiling, immigration reform, Presidential appointment confirmations and a host of other issues. Certainly “the base” has made August the season of intense political workouts and preparation for the contests to come. Augmented by the new technology made available through cell phones in all of our hands and YouTube and other media outlets at all of our fingertips we all get to examine each position and each gaffe.
Unfortunately, in a system that was built on sometimes intense bargaining to reach decisions the message from “the base” to those who represent them is to engage in compromise at your own peril.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.