I was glad to see Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia acknowledge this morning that partisanship on Capitol Hill is intensifying and undermining American governing. I was much less glad to see his explanation for this development (via David Taintor).
Of particular interest was this line about partisanship in D.C.: "I don't think there's any question that it's worse. I think one thing that's made it that way is C-SPAN, very honestly. You've got folks on TV now, instead of doing political commercials, they rant and rave during dinner time on the East Coast, and then at 9 o'clock, you see the West Coast guys up there."
This is not at all persuasive. It's certainly possible that politicians will grandstand for the cameras -- usually at times when the chamber is nearly empty -- though they're probably smart enough to realize C-SPAN's viewing audience is probably pretty small, especially "during dinner time."
What matters more, however, is what these same policymakers are doing when they leave the chamber. Are they working in good faith with their colleagues? Are they open to compromise? Are they taking constructive roles in the process of governing? Very little work gets done on the literal floor of the Senate; the real work is done away from the public eye. Those who care more about policymaking than partisanship are perfectly capable of serving effectively, regardless of the cameras in the chamber.
Besides, C-SPAN started its broadcasts more than three decades ago. If it's the cameras that have created the toxicity, why does everyone think it's so much worse now?
This leads, however, to a separate issue: if C-SPAN cameras aren't responsible for the partisan shift, it's worth considering what the real factor is.
Chambliss' explanation seems inadequate, but there are other explanations. For example, a recently-published analysis of lawmaker ideologies points to a fascinating trend. Looking back over the last 130 years, we see Democratic ideologies remaining relatively stable, while Republicans' shift to the far right has become more pronounced since the 1980s. The GOP that we see today is the most ideologically extreme, at least statistically speaking, since the dawn of the modern American party system.
Doesn't it seem more likely that partisanship has intensified because one of the major parties has become more extreme? It seems far more likely than blaming C-SPAN cameras.