Washington — An homogenization of American politics is under way. The shift in US population from the Northeast and Midwest regions to the South and West is narrowing the liberal-conservative gap within regions rather than weighting the political map toward "Sunbelt conservatism."
During the past decade and a half, since the "liberal" burst of civil rights and environmental legislation in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the congressional delegations of the South and Midwest -- the nation's most conservative regions -- have edged in a more liberal direction. Meanwhile, the liberal bastions of the West and East have sent somewhat more conservative delegations to Washington.
Such overall trends dampen Republican and conservative hopes that congressional redistricting will prove a bonanza for them in the 1982 elections, either in control of the House of Representatives or in a radical ideological swing on Capitol Hill, GOP strategists concede.
And any "new coalition" between a Republican White House and a burgeoning Democratic South must be discounted by the increasing tendency of Sunbelt Democrats to vote like their Yankee counterparts.
Reasons for the leveling of regional differences are simple: A Michigander or New Yorker moving to Texas or Florida tends to retain his economic and social outlook, rather than absorb the regional bias of his new home, Republican and Democratic strategists explain.
A Monitor analysis of Southern, Midwest, Northeast, and Western voting patterns for 1965, 1970, 1975, and 1980 confirms this gradual shift to the political center.
The liberal rating for congressional voting in Southern and border states (as measured by the percentage of times the individual voted "liberal" on an issue with sharp liberal-conservative divisions) rose from an average of 23 percent in 1965 to 28.6 percent in 1980, according to the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) ratings for individual congressmen. In the Midwest, it rose from 41.7 percent in 1965 to 44.6 percent in 1980. The West's liberal voting quotient trailed off from 53.7 percent to 49.3 percent over the decade and a half, and the East's from 60.3 percent to 58.1 percent.
Liberal and conservative ratings are made yearly by such groups as the ADA, the US Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, and the Americans for Constitutional Action. While ratings measure relative rather than absolute political values, with test votes changing from year to year, they do reflect broad evolutionary trends in congressional views, and differences in party and regional voting. The congressional ADA liberal rating for Congress as a whole in 1965 was 42.7 percent, 39.2 percent in 1970, 48.5 percent in 1975, and 43.8 percent in 1980.
The South as a region shows some of the most dramatic change, partly as a result of increased black voting, but partly too because of the Northern voter influx, and the industrial and suburban spurts in the South.
Florida, which gained three seats after the 1970 census, is slated to gain four more congressional seats in 1982. Florida's liberal rating rose from 19.3 percent in 1965 to almost 35 percent last year -- hardly a conservative harbinger.
The biggest changes occurred in the old South. Alabama's congressional ADA quotient multiplied from 4 percent in 1965, the height of President Johnson's civil-rights drive, to 20 percent in 1980. Similarly, Mississippi climbed from 1.2 percent over the 15 years to 13.6 percent, South Carolina from under 2 percent to 25 percent, and Virginia from 5 percent to 25 percent.
Texas and Oklahoma, in the year's since the Johnson era, have slipped toward conservatism -- Texas from 27 percent in 1965 to 24 percent last year, Oklahoma from 42 percent to 35 percent in ADA ratings.
The Midwest's industrial reputation (usually associated with more liberal voting patterns) obscures the conservatism of its Southern and rural reaches.
The liberalism of Michigan (60.8 percent in 1980), Minnesota (57.5 percent), and Iowa (55.5 percent) are heavily offset by Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio, all in the sub-40 percent range in ADA 1980 congressional ratings. Overall, the Midwest showed the greatest bounce -- 15 percent between 1970 and 1975 -- among the four US regions. As the more conservative Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri -- plus liberal Michigan -- yield seats in 1982, the Midwest will likely trend more conservative as their urban centers yield influence to their rural conservative counterparts.
In the West, the ironies of redistricting abound. California continued its steady liberal course with the same 52 percent ADA congressional voting rating in 1980 as in 1965. California's gain of five House seats after 1970 brought no effective change in its political makeup. Its gain of another three seats in 1982 also may mean little. The Golden State is unique in the West, however, in embracing the most liberal Democratic delegtion (an 81 percent rating last year) and most conservative Republican delegation (13 percent) among the more populous West's states.
Liberal Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, all over 50 percent in their liberal ratings, are to gain congressional seats in 1982. This will offset gains in New ,Exico and Arizona -- both of which have grown more conservative in congressional voting the past decade and a half.
The Northeast's Republicans still vote more liberally (40 percent in 1980) in Congress than the Southern Democrats (35 percent). Indeed, as a group, the Republican congressmen in Connecticut and Massachusetts voted more liberally -- over 75 percent -- than Democrats from any Northeast state. Northeast Republicans are among the likely losers in the next redistricting.
For the Northeast region, redistricting after the 1980 census will likely continue the conservative gains already evident after the 1970 census, when the Northeast lost 4 seats. New York's ADA congressional rating trended downward from 65 percent to 59 percent over the decade, Pennsylvania's from 51 percent to 43 percent .