Fire on the fringes creates a tough climate for compromise

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Eric Cantor strikes most people as an exemplar of conservative attitudes. Yet voters in his Virginia congressional district just booted him for being insufficiently conservative.

As I sit here in a public radio office in the bluest city in America, I know what a lot of you are thinking: On what planet is the problem with the House GOP’s No. 2 guy that he’s not conservative enough?

That thought, while understandable, is a symptom of a huge problem in these United States.

For decades, Americans who care about politics have been segregating themselves by political outlook. A new study from the Pew Center for Research on the People and the Press tells the tale.

One half of conservatives say it’s important to them to live in the midst of people who share their political outlook; even more say politics is a key factor in choosing friends.

Lest any liberals cluck their tongues, the Pew study depicts consistent liberals as only marginally more open-minded: 35 percent want to live among other liberals (hellooo Philadelphia) and nearly half say their friends are just as liberal as they are.

The Pew research also shows that ideological silos have grown and hardened. In the last decade, the percentages of Americans who identify as rock solid conservatives or true-blue liberals have shot up.  So have the percentages of people in those campus who agree with the statement that the “other party” is a threat to the nation.

Yet here’s a fact neither group tends to recognize: While growing, each band of partisans still represents only about one in 10 Americans. The American center, though shrinking, is still larger than any other group, at 40 percent.

Problem is, fringe partisans tend to assume they represent a majority of Americans. That’s what happens when you live in politically uniform enclaves, stick to like-minded friends, and get the bulk of your news from Fox or MSNBC.

Relentless gerrymandering of congressional districts intensifies these effects. Each party, when it owns the pencil, draws the lines in ways that concentrate its voters in certain districts. That, over time, compounds self-segregation: Politically active Americans tend not to stay in places where their vote never seems to matter, where their candidates never win.

Finally, all these trends have to mean that the main threat to an incumbent’s job security comes not from the other party. It comes from the narrow, cloistered and increasingly rabid segment to their far right or left.

That’s the painful lesson Cantor learned last week.

And when that lesson hits home, the victims include compromise, outreach and reasonableness.

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