As the political world – and, really, just the world – was glued to Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan announced he would retire in 2020, after two terms.
Mitchell is not a household name and represents a strongly conservative district. So, most people – even political junkies – took almost no notice of his decision.
That’s a mistake – because how Mitchell explained his decision provides a telling window into just how miserable it is to be in Washington these days.
Here’s the key piece of what Mitchell told Politico, which first reported his decision, about his thinking:
“You look at the rhetoric and the vitriol, it overwhelms policy, politics becomes the norm. Everything’s about politics. Everything’s about an election. And at some point of time, that’s not why I came here…
“…The problem is it trickles down to our constituents, where they think it’s OK. And they think this [is the] way the world should be. I think leaders have to lead. They have to stand up, and they have to demonstrate what we should expect of each other in our country.”
Yeah, man, that about covers it.
What’s really important in Mitchell’s condemnation of the way Washington works (or doesn’t) is his astute observation of the effect on voters of the partisanship and nonstop politics in Washington.
“They think this is the way the world should be.” Amen! That is 1000% right.
Thanks to back-to-back decennial redistricting efforts that have shored up incumbents of both parties by packing partisans into like districts, the only threat for the vast majority of members of Congress is in a primary, not a general election. That reality incentivizes politicians to be as partisan and political as possible at all times. Only then can you ensure you won’t face a primary challenge from someone claiming you to be insufficiently loyal to party orthodoxy. That’s especially true in the Republican Party of President Donald Trump, in which any criticism of the President or his policies is punishable by political death. Just ask Jeff Flake. Or Bob Corker. Or Justin Amash.
As long as voters punish politicians who try to do what they believe to be the right thing as opposed to the politically expedient thing, we are going to have a Congress that looks very little like our founding fathers imagined – but looks a lot like the country as a whole.
To that point: In 2014, Pew did an in-depth study of the rising political polarization in the country that revealed this: “Today 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” That’s a massive change from a similar Pew study in 1994 that showed “23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 4% and 5%, respectively.”
We are an increasingly polarized people, broadly speaking. We live around people who agree with our political views. We send our children to schools with people who generally affirm those views. We consume news from outlets that do the same. We very, very rarely choose to go outside of our polarization bubble – and we are even more rarely pushed outside of it.
And despite our assertions to pollsters to the contrary, we punish politicians who show independence from our views. What was once viewed as electing someone who would go to Washington and use their best judgment to represent the interests of their district or state has now become electing someone to do exactly as the titular head of the party says. Any wavering from strict party-line votes are seen as disloyalty.
That produces a political climate in which a second-term member of Congress in a comfortably Republican district throws up his hands after a few years and says: “Enough!”
That Paul Mitchell is retiring may not matter to you. But why he decided to retire says something very serious about our broken political system that everyone should pay attention to.