Watching the political conventions pulls me in two directions. Do I believe the occasional fine talk about transcending differences to solve our big problems in a lasting (namely, bipartisan) way? Or do all the partisan rancor and demonizing foretell “four more years” of impasses? I fear it’s the latter, with a little soothing aloe about cooperation to gull the independents every four years.
One reason for my pessimism was a talk I heard recently by Ronald Brownstein, a distinguished political analyst who was in Seattle to address supporters of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, an institute at the University of Washington and Washington State University that facilitates collaborative problem solving. The Center has been studying civil public discourse, as a fundamental aspect of problem solving. Brownstein was in town to provide some analysis and perspectives. It was very sobering.
Brownstein’s history lesson began by recalling the “ramshackle assemblages” that used to characterize Congress and national parties, and which allowed for temporary coalitions to pass important bills. Each party had conservative and progressive wings, so deal making across the aisles was always an option.
In the period 1938-88, Brownstein argues, we had in effect “four-party politics,” with the four parties made up of Southern Democrats, Moderate-to-Liberal Democrats, Liberal Republicans, and Old Guard Republicans. This system arose after FDR failed to pack the Supreme Court and he realized that even his strong majorities in Congress couldn’t pass major legislation and make it stick without help from other parts of the four parties. LBJ was the last great master of it, with Bill Clinton adept at it but defeated by the Gingrich revolt in Congress.
Probably the last major bipartisan deal was George H.W. Bush’s 1990 budget deal, raising taxes. Since then, it’s been permanent polarization, with much less diversity in either party (the Democrats have more), straight party-line voting, supermajority requirement that give a minority party veto-rights, and what few big measures pass usually have no votes from the other party and therefore little staying power politically.
In effect, Brownstein argues, we have drifted into a "quasi-parliamentary system," where members are required to stand with their parties, not vote their consciences or their districts, where the party leadership imposes solutions on the members, and you have a governing party (normally a slender majority) and an opposition party whose role is to oppose and sabotage, not negotiate and seek common ground. Of course, our presidential system is not set up to work this way. It is made worse when, in the Senate, even a normal majority does not give control, owing to the filibuster.
Newt Gingrich, in his take-no-prisoners insurgency in 1994, consciously installed this kind of lock-step system, but there are many other factors contributing to the continuous warfare of current politics. One factor is the rise of overtly partisan media, which provide a loud megaphone for censuring independent-minded politicians who wander from the party line, and which frame issues in stark terms. Activist groups on the edges of the parties are now able to intimidate dissidents by raising lots of national money to challenge such strays in primaries, punishing compromisers and driving them from the party. The Internet greatly facilitates the raising of such national, movement money.
Another factor is the demise of the old seniority system in the Congress, by which long-serving members from safe seats (often in the South) rose to committee chairmanships and paid little heed to party leadership, since they were impregnable. That ended in the 1974 reforms, giving the party caucuses the right to elect chairs and sending a strong signal that party loyalty was now the path to a chairmanship.
A last factor is what has been called “the great sort” of the electorate, by which all the liberals defected from the Republican Party, where they were a significant factor (remember Gov. Dan Evans and Gov. Tom McCall?), to the Democrats; and conservatives migrated in large numbers from the Democratic party. Seattle, with not a single Republican in the Legislature is an example of this sorting out, and it’s one reason why the state GOP can treat Seattle issues as if they are toxic: they don’t have to worry about protecting some urban Republicans.
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