Eric Thomas: Midterm squabbles distract from parties that remain ideologically unified, polarized (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

In the aftermath of this month’s midterm elections, political journalists have been monitoring the terrain of the Republican Party for fault lines. Of course, this kind of survey is logical after an election that was poised to switch both the U.S. House and Senate to the GOP, but only delivered the House. The underperforming party endures this kind of scrutiny rather than the underdog who surpassed projections.

To be sure, the GOP fault lines are easy to locate.

This week’s headlines described the internecine conflict within Kansas Republican circles about how to penalize party members who backed the campaign of state Sen. Dennis Pyle for governor. His candidacy, if you believe Derek Schmidt campaign officials, was doomed by Pyle. The next four years under Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly are Pyle’s fault or Schmidt’s fault, depending on which Republican you ask.

Donald Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he will run for the presidency for the third time in eight years will certainly divide Republicans, as it did to greater and lesser degrees in 2016 and 2020. MAGA Republicans will cheer his nativism and bluster. Other Republicans will fret about his electability after losing the popular vote in 2016 and the presidential election in 2020, despite his tantrums to the contrary both times. Again, we see a party divided.

So, what is a party to do when stretched by such political differences?

The same could be asked of Democrats. Consider the contrast between national political figures like Elizabeth Warren, who by some measures is the most liberal senator ever, and Joe Manchin, whose political positions make him as conservative as some Republicans. 

In other ways, you might see the strain to appeal to a broad swath of voters as a challenge for Democrats. They must decide whether to emphasize abortion rights and whether to stand up for transgender people, among other cultural issues that might jettison voters on the edges of their electorate.

For those reasons, it is tempting after the midterms to see our political parties as ideologically stretched, platforms constructed with cantilevers that accommodate people at the extremes. For Republicans, it’s both people who worship Trump and detest him. On the Democratic side, they must create a platform that advocates for radical climate change action while caucusing with a senator with ties to big coal.

However, the broader context outside of this midterm moment, if we remember to zoom out and see it, is that our political parties are more consolidated than stretched at this moment.

Political scientists and political journalists have been researching and writing about the polarization of the U.S. political landscape for decades. This polarization increasingly has shepherded the two parties away from one another. Individual politicians within a given party are more likely to vote together. One striking video after another document how our tribes are more distant from one another and yet unified within.

This polarization has allowed for candidates with extreme political positions to become central figures in their parties. According to vote scoring by the political science department at UCLA, two of the most liberal senators in recent years were presidential candidates: Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, who now serves as vice president. Likewise, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz earned scores more extreme than the notorious segregationist Jesse Helms.

Politicians like these test their parties’ ability to appeal to a wide swath of voters. Yet their extreme positions don’t seem as challenging to include in a party identity as the more scattered and overlapping party identities 50 years ago. In the 1970s, legislators within a party disagreed on policy. And they showed it in their voting records. (Comparing different eras using this online tool makes that clear.)

When compared to the lockstep coordination within parties today, previous eras were a madhouse of party disloyalty.

Today, it’s easy to see how the same tactics that have separated the two parties are also cultivating divisions within the parties. The demonization of political adversaries is especially widespread on the right, but is present in both parties. We label people who disagree with us as “enemies” and “evil.” (This can make the Thanksgiving dinner table into a verbal kickboxing match.)

This reflex to find an adversary — even within your own political party — seems to be playing out now. Republicans who call people on the left “socialists” and “communists” are likely the same firebrands who alienate potential voters by attacking “RINOS,” or Republicans in name only. These Republicans, it would seem, are valuable centrist voters that could have helped many campaigns. But it’s difficult to tame our political habits, even when dealing with people we generally agree with.

In that way, when Schmidt lost his gubernatorial campaign by roughly 20,000 votes, we needed a reason. The reflex, within the party, has been to look to the most conservative flank and covet the votes drawn away by Pyle.

It says a lot about our politics in 2022 that we aren’t looking to the center. The wide gulf opened between our two dominant political parties could provide voters that might have led to Schmidt’s victory — and others for both Democrats and Republicans.

— Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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