Thursday, June 8, 2006

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The role of partisanship in American politics

It's been a busy day for the partisanship meme today.

In The American Prospect, Marc Schmitt points out what many have observed in the past -- the rising ideological purity of both Democrats and Republicans:

If there is a voter backlash against the GOP this November, it will be aimed at the far-right Republicans who've been running the party. But, like a quail-hunting Dick Cheney, it will instead take out an unintended target—the so-called "moderate" Republicans who are somewhat pro-environment, more or less pro-choice, and sometimes labor-friendly leftovers of the genteel GOP tradition. Generally speaking, these are the only Republicans in vulnerable districts.

Shed no tears for the Republican moderates. As Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a Prospect-sponsored breakfast in May, they are "enablers" of the culture of corruption. But the disappearance of Republicans who were willing to deviate occasionally from right-wing orthodoxy will mark a major change in our political life and culture. Back in 1994, many conservative Democrats were wiped out in the election and the party switching that followed. This year, whether Democrats win enough seats to control the House or not, the second shoe will drop. The hardening of our country into a parliamentary democracy, with two parties representing distinct ideologies and political traditions, will be complete.

Is this a bad thing? Polarized partisanship makes it hard to get things done, unless one party controls everything, as in a real parliament. Or could it be a good thing? In 1950, political scientists issued a plea for American parties to become just like this—ideologically coherent and "responsible," modeled on the British parliamentary parties. The answer doesn't matter; this is the way it's going to be. It may turn out that the political framework of the 20th century—in which conservative and moderate factions in each of the two parties overlapped, and shifting bipartisan coalitions were always the way things got done—was the anomaly, a living fossil dating from the peculiar history of the post-Reconstruction South.

Anomalous or not, that framework is exactly what almost everyone in Washington was trained for. We were all brought up knowing that the first thing you must do to pass legislation is to build a solid bipartisan coalition. But soon, whether we choose partisanship or not, we will all be absorbed into a more partisan world, and those who fight that trend will be left behind....

One of the arguments of the 1950 political scientists was for this very result, to reduce the influence of "the pressure groups," because ideas would move through the parties rather than through external, unaccountable groups. But the political framework of the late 20th century had a lot going for it. In theory if not always in practice, it could find consensus and more stable solutions to public problems. But it's going, and in its place we will have a more rigid system in which the parties themselves dominate. The conservatives probably figured this out first and embraced it, thus explaining much of their political success in the last decade. Liberals can lament the loss of the old pluralist world, but we had better move on and deal with the new.

Oddly enough, partisanship is also the theme of Tom DeLay's valedictory address to the House of Representatives. I've never been a big fan of DeLay, but his address offers an interesting rejoinder to Schmitt:
In preparing for today, I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the "good old days" of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy.

I can’t do that. Because partisanship, Mr. Speaker — properly understood — is not a symptom of a democracy’s weakness, but of its health and strength — especially from the perspective of a political conservative....

Indeed, the common lament over the rise in political partisanship is often nothing more than a veiled complaint instead about the rise of political conservatism. I should add here that I do not begrudge liberals their nostalgia for the days of a timid, docile, and permanent Republican minority. If we Republicans had ever enjoyed the same luxury over the last twelve years… Heck, I’d be nostalgic, too!

Had liberals not fought us tooth and nail over tax cuts and budget cuts and energy and Iraq and partial-birth abortion, those of us on this side of the aisle can only imagine all the additional things we could have accomplished. But the fact of the matter is, Mr. Speaker, they didn’t agree with us.

So — to their credit — they stood up to us. They argued with us. And they did so honorably, on behalf of more than 100 million people, just like we did against President Clinton, and they did against President Reagan....

The point is: we disagree. On first principles, Mr. Speaker, we disagree. And so we debate — often loudly, and often in vain — to convince our opponents and the American people of our point of view. We debate here on the House floor. We debate in committees. We debate on television, and on radio, and on the Internet, and in the newspapers. And then every two years, we have a HUGE debate… and then in November we see who won.

That is not rancor.

That is democracy!

You show me a nation without partisanship, and I’ll show you a tyranny.

For all its faults, it is partisanship — based on core principles — that clarifies our debates, that prevents one party from straying too far from the mainstream, and that constantly refreshes our politics with new ideas and new leaders.

Indeed, whatever role partisanship may have played in my own retirement today — or in the unfriendliness heaped upon other leaders in other times, Republican and Democrat, however unjust — all we can say is that partisanship is the worst means of settling fundamental political differences… except for all the others.

Now, politics demands compromise, Mr. Speaker, and even the most partisan among us have to understand that. But we must never forget that compromise and bipartisanship are means, not ends, and are properly employed only in the service of higher principles.

It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first-principle. For true statesmen, Mr. Speaker, are not defined by what they compromise, but what they don’t.

Two cavils to DeLay's farewell address. First, the defense of "higher principles" would have a better ring to it if the Hammer hadn't played such a large role in policies that served no ideological purpose other than dishing large slabs of pork to favored constituencies.

Second -- and this is where I break ranks with both DeLay and Schmitt -- I don't think Democrats and Republicans disagree on the first principles of governing. I'm not even sure they disagree on second principles. There are policy differences, to be sure -- but Carl Schmitt (not relation to Marc) does not travel well to these shores -- no matter what Alan Wolfe says.

If Marc Schmitt is correct, then the next few years will be an interesting test of my beliefs.

posted by Dan on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM


I suspect regular readers already know what I think about this.

Partisanship, rigid and uncompromising, is required by definition in one and only one part of American political life: election campaigns. Our problem today is that this part of our political life dominates all the others.

"Everyone in Washington" has certainly not been trained to operate in the legislative framework that Schmitt speaks of. Both in Congress and in the executive branch, among elected officials as well as appointed ones, most people's formative political experiences involve the fundraising, positioning and message discipline required by the modern campaign -- a game in which compromise with one's opponent cannot happen, though compromise of many others things does. The media are suffused with campaign consciousness, partly I suppose because most news media are subsidiaries of corporations whose primary business is entertainment, and election campaigns are the most reliable source of entertainment in the news business. History may be what happens in between election campaigns, but to most of political Washington the campaigns are now the unquestioned main event.

Tom DeLay's own career in Congress illustrates the point; its major achievement was a Texas redistricting aimed at electing more Republicans in that state. Within the Congress his tenure as majority leader was marked by centralization of power over committee assignments and the legislative calendar in the party leadership, the better to achieve the clear message so important to the election campaign. And his career ends with speculation only about how his criminal indictment will affect races in Texas this year.

What modern campaign-oriented partisanship produces is not so much parties distinguished by ideology as politicians distinguished by not much at all. The "culture of corruption" Ms. Pelosi denounces now (on instruction from her campaign consultants) is the very culture she and her Democratic colleagues will embrace with gusto should they gain a House majority this fall. Republicans in a position to be bought have sought buyers; Democrats when they acquire the position will begin their own search, as a couple of the more industrious ones already have. They both left behind some time ago what has really made Washington work over the years; not vagueness of ideology but rather a recognition that the campaign and government are related, but separate. The number of people in Washington who even understand how that could be has been in decline for years, a decline that shows no signs of reversing itself.

posted by: Zathras on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

Any "hardening...into a parliamentary democracy" will stop when the US next has a significantly divided government. As long as one party can enact legislation alone, there's no need for bipartisanship.

posted by: vasi on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

"If there is a voter backlash against the GOP this November, it will be aimed at the far-rightRepublicans who've been running the party."

I read this and decided with a opening statement this ignorant the rest of Schnitt's article was not worth reading.

The Republican base is angry because the leadership has not been far right enough. The leadership can't kill the death tax, can't stop pork barrell spending, can't cut back on over regulation, and can't stop looking like corrupt hogs at the government trough.

That is what is going to hurt the Republicans this fall not being far right wing.

posted by: TJIT on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

We've got a progressive party horrified of progress and a conservative party which the last thing they want to do is conserve anything. I've basically checked out aside from national security.

A third party would be great, but it would have to be built from the ground up. Running for president is a waste of time. Win a few seats in congress, maybe a senate seat and try to play kingmaker. Thats how you legitimately influence policy.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

Another very interesting post, Dan.

But your reference to Cark Schmitt in the same breath as Marc Schmitt. You might wish to explain yourself further.

posted by: JohnFH on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

I think you hit the real point, which is that the two parties really don't disagree on very much insofar as their differences affect the routine functioning of government and the continuity of basic policy. But on the issues of national security and demographic inclusion, I think real differences do exist and could sharpen.

Modern party politics date from the Pendleton Act of 1883, which outlawed the spoils system under which the parties financed themselves from the salaries of the government jobs to which they appointed their followers. After 1883, the parties had to rely on private sector contributions. The reform made politics highly stable, losing its balance only twice, when populists rebelled in the 1890s (only to be accommodated by the Progressive movement later) and when Wall Street failed after 1929 (but accommodated itself to the New Deal). After 1945, though, the gradual spread of primary elections began to empower Main Street at the expense of Wall Street and began to inject a new spirit of ideology into the differences between the two parties.

The demographic bases and issue orientations of the two parties also changed. After 1865, the liberal party (the Democrats) was also the party of states' rights and white racial supremacy in the south, while the conservative party (the Republicans) was the party of industrial revolution and central government. The two regions united on foreign policy against the midwest, though, which was Republican but more isolationist. After Vietnam, the Democrats lost most of the south and the Republicans lost most of the north. Both parties embraced central government but for different reasons: Republicans to ensure national security, Democrats to achieve greater demographic inclusion. The midwest got on board with internationalism but continued to vote Republican for other reasons, giving Republicans the kind of majority they enjoyed from 1865 to 1929, but on a more southern than northern set of issues. It is the greater parity between the two issue sets, and the role of primaries in the election process, that gives rise to the current sense of greater partisanship.

The relative decline of the United States as a world power over the next three decades, as new great powers gain economic and military strength and as nuclear weapons empower smaller states, will reduce both the ability and the willingness of Americans to police the world. This change could work to the advantage of the Democratic party, if Republican responses to attacks on the United States do little in the long run to arrest America's relative decline. Democrats may also benefit from demographic trends at home that will either marginalize the Republican voter base in its current form or cause the base to be more inclusive.

In the short-run, party differences could become sharper if national security and demographics become deeper wedge issues. But the longer-term trends, if they continue, should temper these differences eventually.

posted by: David Billington on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

The problem with having the parties clearly split along ideological lines is that the largest group in the electorate is not liberals or conservatives but moderates, and when the two parties are so split the moderates lose their influence.

The present high level of partisanship is partly the result of a conscious strategy by the conservative movement. As Hacker and Pierson point out in their book Off Center, conservatives have never been the majority. However, they do outnumber liberals, and so they worked to exclude the middle so that the battles would be conservative versus liberal, which they knew they could win.

posted by: Les Brunswick on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

I'm not aware of the latest studies, but both dimly recalled research and personal experience tell me that "moderates" tend to be the least informed, least interested, and least thoughtful group on policy issues. The reason is simple: engagement requires passion of some sort, and the moderate are usually less engaged emotionally in the issues.

If you think that the war in Iraq is a huge scandal requiring immediate rectification, or the reverse, you're going to pay attention to what's going on with it here and in country. If you're lukewarm, you sort of see a drift of images on TV and in the newspapers and form a vague impression.

The spread of targeted media means that the passionate minority, who follow politics and policy the way sports fans follow sports, have way more influence between elections and set the tone. During the elections, the lukewarm moderates matter more to the candidates and parties than at other times, so campaigns in some ways are less partisan than the off-year politics, contrary to Zathras's take. Bush sounded a lot more moderate running as a compassionate conservative than he does governing (although his actions have been a lot more "moderate" than most people realize, for good and ill).

posted by: srp on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

There may be general backlash that hurts moderate GOP incumbents, but let's not forget that several of the farther right Republicans are also looking like they're going to get tossed out, Santorum being at the head of that list. Interestingly, Casey, the Dem who will likely unseat him, is a moderate's moderate. Heck, he's even pro-life, though how he will actually vote on the more nuanced abortion issues remains to be seen.

posted by: TT on 06.08.06 at 08:39 PM [permalink]

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