Three real reasons why American politics got harsher: Kevin Modesti

The shooting of Steve Scalise, the Republican House whip and second baseman, has inspired a new round of soul-searching about why politics is so mean these days.

The answer is not in our souls. It’s in our laws.

The June 14 shooting of Scalise and three other people by a left-wing nut at a Republican team baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., might in fact not be a symptom of the vitriol everybody accuses everybody else of these days. Violence has been a feature of American political culture from Hamilton to “Hamilton.” If we’re going to blame political violence on anything, blame it not on our divisive decade but on our divisive 250 years.

Still, it might be true that politics is meaner now in some new way, and that fixing the problem is vital to the health of our democracy. In which case we should look for the real roots of the trouble and not put it all down, as many commentators have done, to some momentary national character flaw.

If elected officials have turned more partisan, their supporters and ad-makers more vicious, the media more opinionated and the public more contemptuous of one another, the reason could be that they all have powerful incentive to do so.

Three incentives leap to mind, all the products of the actions of legislatures and courts:

• Gerrymandering: Manipulating legislative district boundaries to boost the election chances of the party in power is not new. The practice is named, after all, for Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts governor who became vice president under James Madison. But it has played a big role in shaping today’s political landscape.

After Republicans’ sweeping victories in the 2010 congressional and state legislative elections, GOP majorities in many states took advantage of once-a-decade redrawing of district lines in a concerted effort to protect the party’s House incumbents. The maneuver is having its intended effect — and a side-effect.

When voters of one party dominate a district, an incumbent must guard against a primary challenge by a more extreme candidate. The incumbent naturally becomes more partisan. Repeat the effect in dozens of districts, and Congress only becomes more partisan.

• Campaign financing: Limits on contributions to candidates have been getting looser, in large part because of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the cases of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010, enabling corporations and organizations to give money) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014, scrapping caps on the total amount an individual can donate to candidates in a year).


Big-money super PACs are formed, and individuals invest fortunes in a slate of candidates, rarely to support thoughtful moderation and more often to sponsor inflexible zealots. The effect of bigger money in elections is to make the ads it buys harsher and the candidates it buys more beholden to the fringes.

• The end of the Fairness Doctrine: Young ones might be shocked to hear that TV and radio’s political coverage used to actually be fair and balanced. The Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine made it a condition for getting a broadcast license.

Then cable TV stations began to proliferate, ostensibly robbing the handful of traditional networks of their power to sway political debate and elections. The Fairness Doctrine was deemed obsolete. The FCC eliminated it in 1987.

Whether that decision was right or wrong on principle, it is directly responsible for the rise of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and MSNBC, and the recasting of politics as a team sport.

I realize that attributing the current state of politics to laws and policies isn’t much fun. Proper hand-wringing and moralizing requires placing the blame on personal failings — other people’s, of course.

But if politicians, their financial backers and ideologues in the news media are going to tone it down, and if the American public is going to stop letting them manipulate us into warring sides, then everybody must understand what created this trouble in the first place.

For much of the ill will flowing from both sides in American politics today, the cause is decisions by the Reagan-era FCC, by Republican-dominated legislatures and by the conservative-led Supreme Court,

Kevin Modesti is a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Twitter: @KevinModesti