Democrats and Republicans are more polarized than ever, according to the Pew Research Center. The average partisan gap, or difference between the two parties, has doubled from 1987 to today. The Pew report contends that both parties are growing smaller and becoming more ideologically homogenous, with self-identified conservative Republicans outnumbering moderates 2 to 1, and the number of liberal Democrats is increasing as well.
In freshman-level political science classes, students learn that one of the benefits of having a two-party system is that each party must appeal to the middle of the electorate, leading to two closely aligned, moderate parties that differ, for the most part, on the margins.
Yet, for a lot of reasons, in recent years we’ve seen the two parties move further and further away from the middle, leaving out a large part of the electorate.
Oklahoma is no exception. The Cook Partisan Voting Index, which compares how Democratic/Republican states are to the country as a whole, ranks Oklahoma as the third most conservative state in the country.
As someone who identifies as a moderate, actively participating in Oklahoma politics is frequently very frustrating. It’s incredibly challenging to see Oklahoma so outside the mainstream that the only national news we seem to make is when our Senator shows up to congress with a snowball or when our legislature proposes to make wearing hoodies illegal. We’ve also been battling a structural budget deficit, and since the economic recovery we’ve seen the largest decline in per pupil education spending of any state.
That being said, living in Oklahoma has taught me a lot about what it means to be bipartisan.
First, it’s incredibly easy for people from more liberal places to belittle “those” crazy people in the bible belt. Surprisingly, the dismissal of an entire group of people because they’re different from you is pretty alienating. While I often disagree with a lot of Oklahoma legislators, if I want to communicate my interests, I have to at least listen to them and hear where they’re coming from.
Demonizing the political party that controls over three-fourths of the legislature, the governor’s office and the entire Oklahoma delegation to Washington is never going to get anything you want done.
Second, there’s a lot of room in the middle for compromise. The political parties are more polarized than ever, which would make it seem like Democrats and Republicans aren’t capable of agreeing on anything. But really, now is just a good of time as ever for bipartisanship.
I would be willing to bet that people who identify as center-right or center-left share more common beliefs than the center-right has in common with say, Sally Kern.
This legislative session, we’ve actually seen Oklahoma make progress on a number of issues like voting and criminal justice reform through bipartisan efforts. For example, last week both chambers approved a measure allowing for online voter registration. It also looks like the legislature might alter some mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and allow ex-felons to obtain certain state-issued occupational licenses.
Lastly, while I believe that compromise is possible on a great number of issues, living in Oklahoma has forced me to define my “non-negotiables.” There are certain issues that I cannot give up without fundamentally compromising my deeply held beliefs. Since I’ve defined these issues, I can spend more time on issues where there is more room for give and take.
If all of Oklahoma’s moderates throw up their hands, accepting that Oklahoma politics will always be dominated by the far right, then Oklahoma will continue to pass extremist policies without challenge. But if the middle can come together and identify issues where both sides of the aisle can find a compromise, then maybe Oklahoma will get some attention for something positive.