Increasing political divide has region's lawmakers reined in by their own parties
First-term Republican congressman Dusty Johnson stood before farmers at DakotaFest last month during the recess and faced a question that sounds like a broken record: why can’t politicians get along.
“What’s the chance we get some help on these roads,” asked Bruce Gleich, from Yankton, S.D. “We got a lot of flooding down around Yankton County, where we have roads that school buses can’t go down.”
But Rep. Johnson didn’t offer any false hope.
“I’m hearing nothing about that and radio silence for the $2 trillion price tag,” said Johnson, agreeing with the need for action. “It is almost impossible to pay for that in a politically practical way.”
The sober talk from Johnson is a far cry from the energetic, smiling cutouts that populated South Dakota just under a year ago before his wide election in this red state. But Washington, D.C., has maybe left its bruising mark. Johnson, a former utilities commissioner from Mitchell, took a beating from his own party for joining Democrats in the House to block President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency along the southern border. A resolution was even introduced in the State House in Pierre to rebuke Johnson for that vote.
“It’s not a strategy for survival,” said Johnson, now speaking more like a seasoned veteran than an exuberant newcomer. “The reality is being an independent mind, breaking from the herd, that is routinely going to be the case that that is going to cost you more than it’s going to gain you. We’re in a highly politicized environment.”
In June, Atlantic Monthly reported on a political survey suggesting that while affiliation to political parties is weakening, antagonistic — and even caricatured — views of political opponents is rising, contributing to an increasing gridlock in D.C. Democrats surveyed estimated only 5 in 10 Republicans found legal immigration a positive (the actual number is 9 in 10). Republicans, meanwhile, estimated less than half of Democrats would consider themselves patriotic (the actual number is 4 out of 5).
“America’s political divisions are driven by hatred of an out-group rather than love of the in-group,” wrote reporter Yascha Mounk.
The University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs Director Larry Jacobs agrees that that divide is only getting worse and points to the control parties have over the nominating process. But he also points back to voters.
“Most voters are more moderate [than politicians],” observed Jacobs. “On the other hand, when they get to the voting booth, they choose one or the other.”
Three new Republican congressmen arrived from the Dakotas and Minnesota this January, Johnson, North Dakota Rep. Kelly Armstrong, and Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber, where the twin pressures of fundraising and moving up into leadership positions often requires pleasing party heavyweights. But D.C. also uniquely offers a chance to get to know the other party.
Armstrong found that out playing in the annual summer congressional baseball game, a popular DC-event that can would surprise folks outside the capital with its level of across-the-aisle bonhomie. It also offered a throwback example of sausage-making. In that next morning’s Politico’s Playbook, it was reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence had spoken “briefly” on the sidelines of the game at Nationals Park, reaching a tentative deal over emergency funding to the border, a compromise they’d ink later that week in a vote with more Republican support than Democratic.
“People used to say that prior to this hyperpolarized [era] that everybody in D.C. got the joke,” said Rep. Armstrong, a Dickinson native who previously served in the North Dakota Legislature. “Republicans and Democrats were fighting and [then] having dinner and laughing it up together afterward.”
He acknowledged that while that extra-curricular social time has dwindled, particularly given the frequency with which members (including Rep. Armstrong) fly home, he said he counts friends on the Judiciary Committee within the Democratic caucus, including Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin and Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse.
“I treat it like this,” said Armstrong. “Lawyers get a bad wrap. [But] we can yell and scream at each other 1 p.m. on issue A and at 1:15, we can put that behind us and work together on issue B.”
In July, when Trump exhorted members of the so-called “Squad,” liberal congresswomen Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ilhan Omar Of Minneapolis, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, to “go back [to their home countries],” Rep. Armstrong became one of only a few Republicans to publicly chide the president without offering a similar rebuke of Democratic members’ sharp rhetoric against the president.
“I took a lot of heat for criticizing a Trump Tweet, [but] I just didn’t like the Tweet about the members of the Squad,” said Armstrong, who issued a statement calling attacks on ethnicity and nationality “never OK.”
(Johnson also called Trump’s Tweet “inappropriate” and “the wrong way” to communicate disagreement. Stauber called the Tweet “name-calling happening on both sides of the aisle.”)
In reaching for a metaphor to describe the importance of bipartisanship, the Duluth-native Stauber, only the second Republican to represent Minnesota’s 8th congressional district in over 70 years, drew upon his former hockey player roots and whom he called “the greatest hockey coach”: Herb Brooks.
“He [Brooks] told his team that the name on the front of the jersey means more than the name on the back,” said Stauber, who previously served on nonpartisan municipal and county boards in Hermantown and St. Louis County. “That resonates with me even in this position [as U.S. congressman].”
But Stauber doesn’t gloss over the policy differences undergirding partisanship. He said alarm was OK for some Democratic presidential candidates‘ call to pass Medicare-for-All.
“That means 75% of my constituents would lose their private health insurance,” said Stauber. “Those are discussions that I want to have. We all want to drive down costs and [make healthcare] more accessible and patient-driven, but it certainly isn’t putting government in control. Those are some stark differences, and that’s a major difference between the Republicans and Democrats.”
The upper-Midwest states have a reputation for consensus-minded political compromise. The Bipartisan Coalition Policy Center, founded by four former Senate majority leaders, including South Dakota Dem. Tom Daschle, ranks a number of former politicians from the Upper Midwest, including North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, as well as former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber.
And — at least in his first 8 months of votes — Armstrong has voted with his Democratic colleagues across-the-aisle the fourth-most of all Republican freshmen in Congress (Stauber ranks fifth), according to Quorum.
As Congress returns to D.C., the areas of bipartisanship range from the proposed gun reform of so-called “red flag laws” to a needed spending bill to fend off another government shutdown at month’s end. If and when other vital issues get addressed —such as the quality of roads and bridges — may well depend on how well those representatives sent to Washington can work together.
It’s a common refrain that Stauber said he heard on the road in northern Minnesota during the August recess, Armstrong heard from farmers concerned over the fate of USMCA (the new NAFTA, which requires congressional approval), and Johnson heard at DakotaFest from his constituent in Yankton County concerned about roads.
Afterward, that voters — Bruce Gleich — said the answer was honest, but not entirely satisfying.
“I just kind of wish that there’d be more independent representatives that go around the gridlock and things,” said Gleich. “If 15 or 17 of them turn around and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem with this,’ they’d get a lot more attention than if it was just one person yelling in the dark.”