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How political polarization tied this country in knots

Presidents routinely come in promising to rise above the warfare, and fail. A national political expert lists all the factors that have produced the demolition derby of national politics.

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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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 7:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Brewster makes a number of important points but does not make any reference to the new elephant in the room -- the impact of Citizens United on our elections. It is a likely game changer whose ramifications on American political life is yet to be fully understood.

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Those wringing their hands over Citizens United fail to mention that it, really, only leveled the playing field. Prior to CU, indian tribes were exempted from campaign limitations imposed by McCain-Feingold. The "tribal loophole" as it is called was exploited to great profit and power. If Congress, at the bleating of folks like Swift, seek to "correct" the Citizens United ruling, the public should insist on one tenet: that all laws apply equally to everyone.

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Oops! I see that there is passing reference to raising money, but surely not enough emphasis placed on it.

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Pundits sometimes puzzle as well as fascinate. I'm still thinking about the notion that the 1990 budget was the last major bipartisan deal. I would have described two more recent bills as bipartisan compromises in challenging policy areas. The welfare reform law adopted during Bill Clinton's first term and the No Child Left Behind Law that Bush, Kennedy, and Murray helped pass in 2002. Both bills required significant compromises from each team and both were controversial with factions within each chamber and political team.

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Of course, Mr. Brewster fails to mention the role partisan "journalism" has played in the devolution.

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

But he does mention it in the 7th paragraph. To wit: "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."

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

So he does. Missed it. My bad. Thank you.

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

I think this article is overly pessimistic. An examination of the political history of the US over the past 200+ years rather than the past 40 would show that Washington has on several previous occassions descended into petty partisanship and gridlock and yet the US has done pretty well through it all.

As this article notes, the Republican party cannot continue to prosper on its present course given the changing demographics of the electorate and the inevitable demise of the Tea Party (history tells us that illogical populist movements have limited staying power). Similarly the Democratic party has to expand its appeal beyond a declining union base and a liberal ideology which has little resonance in much of the country. While some might wish to see the demise of the current 2 party system, it seems more likely the parties will be forced to return to the the center. A slow but steady move away from congressional gerrymandering (e.g., California) will eventually moderate the polarization of the House.

America has very substantial long-term fiscal problems but they are fortunately solvable by making middle of the road compromises and the solution can at the penalty of a little more pain down the road be put off a few years. If the grid lock continues then the much maligned financial markets and the financial interests that substantially influence politics will force them to do the right thing - defaulting on the national debt or falling off a fiscal cliff, might actually be a good thing in the long term if it focuses politicians on the need to get beyond gridlock.

Finally, it is remarkably difficult to predict the future and it only takes one turn of events to change the picture. Although it now seems increasingly unlikely, if the Republicans managed to sweep the Presidency and Senate in November so that they could actually implement much of what they have promised, it seems quite plausible that the US would revert to a Democratic House and Senate at the first opportunity two years later. A chastened and pragmatic President Romney might work quite effectively with a Democratic congress just as Bill Clinton did when the party rolls were reversed. A reelected President Obama might prefer to stand up to the zealots in his own party rather than be written into history as an ineffectual President

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I, too, am puzzled why Mr. Brewster didn't cite Welfare reform as an example of bipartisan cooperation. Speaker Gingrich's take-no-prisoners partisanship and President Clintons' (apostrophe placed intentionally) "perpetual campaign" and "war room" still yielded to a major piece of policy reform.


Certainly the rise of the "Moral Majority" had a lot to do with reshaping the Republican party for the worse. These zealots showed up at precinct caucuses and muscled out moderates and libertarians with cries of "Prayer in schools!" and "Ban abortion!" Reagan was smart enough to give them lip service, while by and large ignoring their agenda. But by the time Reagan was gone, they had pretty much taken over the party. The Tea Party movement tried to wrest control late in the Bush term and push the GOP back towards a line of fiscal responsibility and religious indifference, but to a growing extent they've been co-opted by the bible thumpers as well.


The Democrats, as the party comprised of a million single-issue, aggrieved interest groups, always had a moderating influence in the fact that there was no dominant force. That started to unravel with the McGovern campaign and its ennoblement of an equally faith-based leftist agenda. But it really ended with the Bush Administration, when all of these factions were able to unite behind the belief that if Dub'ya wasn't the face of evil in this world, his demonic puppetmaster Dick Cheney must certainly be. That hatred has now morphed into a general distrust of business and success, bent on replacing community spirit with government programs, and by and large satisfied with a diminishing America, since a rising America is so Republican.


I keep hoping that once the Baby Boomers leave the political stage by attrition, younger members of both parties will return to seeing their jobs as how they can best serve and promote Americans as we pursue our own goals and happiness, rather than fighting each other for how best to control and manipulate us. If this is a false hope, well, I'll be dead in 50 years or less, so I have an eventual escape. I fear for the generations that follow, however.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 2:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Oh blulite. Those nations within a nation really do get you upset. Take westerns too seriously as a kid? Not getting enough wild salmon to eat because some (no names mentioned of course) are getting more than their fair share? Lose the family fortune at an Indian-run casino?

Better a bleat than a responder who claims everyone should be non-partisan except him. Bah-bah little blulite. Why not get your own blog, or write something for crosscut instead of always being negative and critical of everyone else? But I've come to understand that you are only a responder and not an original thinker. Too bad.

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 10 p.m. Inappropriate

http://washingtonstatewire.com/blog/tribes-dumping-big-money-into-legislative-campaigns-more-than-1-million-so-far/

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 4:14 p.m. Inappropriate

I've talked to Jim Cooper, who represents the Nashville area in the US House, about this, and he complains quite often about the demands of partisanship in Congress. He claims about an 80% Democratic voting records and thinks that ought to be good enough, and this does diminish his influence relative to the 99%ers. He sees gerrymandering and the expansion of money in politics as the main culprits.

I'm all for fair districting and limitations on independent expenditures, but it seems that the issue is more fundamental. It should in fact be made obvious by looking at a map: in contrast to the situation a generation ago, the same states and counties usually vote the same way in elections all across the board. A "landslide" in the presidential election would mean four of five swing states going the other way, and a 40+ state victory would be impossible. The racial polarization is real but only part of the story. It now seems that partisan distinctions are nothing less than class distinctions.

In order for the parties to succeed, they must embrace the new reality. The pundits thought that, after 2000, George W. Bush would and should move to the center as promised in that campaign. Instead he focused on activating the Christian right and, aided by strong public support in the aftermath of 9/11, became one of the few presidents to score midterm gains for his party. Barack Obama made similar promises in 2008, no doubt imagining that he could govern in a bipartisan way. It didn't work, and now he will likely be reelected by running a partisan campaign.

This will change eventually, as circumstances always change, but I doubt for a very long time. Instead I think it is better to try to work in the context of the polarized and permanent campaign atmosphere than fighting against it.

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 4:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm happy that we are finally discussing the costs to this country of partisan political polarization (quick flash of Porky Pig attempting that phrase) -- but it fills me with a sort of bleak despair when we insist on treating at as a problem with two equal originators. Let's face it, the Dems are not the problem when it comes to polarization.

Two statements in this article are easy places to start:

1. "in the Senate, even a normal majority does not give control, owing to the filibuster."

This was not true until the most recent Democratic majority in the Senate. If you amended this sentence to read "owing to Republican abuse of the filibuster", you'd be more accurate.

Surely you've seen the statistics for filibuster use by year or by Congressional "class"? Before 2009, the filibuster was rarely used by either party; since 2009, that Senate rule, along with many others, like the secret "hold", have been used on nearly every piece of legislation passed by the House.

And the filibuster doesn't only require a supermajority for passage of a law -- it is being used so legislation can't even be debated without a supermajority.

2. "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."

Where are the Democrats being terrorized into being more liberal for fear of losing a primary? Where are the wild-eyed extreme-left media empires to equal Fox, Clear Channel et al? The only Democrats I've seen who fear the primary process are the Blue Dogs, whose fear is that they haven't been conservative enough to please their constituents. The drive to the extremes is a Republican phenomenon. The flight of moderate Rs from the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt has not been voluntary -- as the R tent has shrunk, non-extremists have been forced out.

I know we're a long way from DC, but surely some of us remember the furor created earlier this year, when Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published their piece "Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem" in the Post? If you haven't read it, you should. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/2012/04/27/gIQAxCVUlT_story.html

westomoon

Posted Sun, Sep 9, 11:38 p.m. Inappropriate

We really need to have American History taught in the class rooms again. It was a Democrat, Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont. in fact who changed the way filibusters were to be conducted in the Senate. So all this whining by the left because of a mere threat of a filibuster is total bullshift. Harry Reid had the chance to change the rules and didn't. Why? Because he and the Democrats didn't want to give up something they might need to use in the future.

Any poster who looks to blame the Republicans for using the filibuster should direct their whine to the persons who changed it and those who didn't restore it back to it's original function. Those in power know that at sometime they'll be out and they don't want to be totally unarmed. That's the real reason our political process is a wreck, the thought of being out of power, which makes it best argument for term limits at the federal level.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

The role of money in contemporary divisive politics requires more than a footnote. The need for a member of Congress to run for office every two years requires that they heed the siren calls of lobbyists with deep pockets. This situation is exacerbated, in my view, by the Supreme Court’s holding in Citizens United. Thus, with adequate funding, a candidate can say a great deal, particularly shortly before the date of an election, without concern for investigative journalism, to the extent that that institution remains viable, and I decline to comment on that tangent. However, most if not all campaigns are poll driven, and money influences the polls; ergo, the mantra, ‘follow the money’ applies to many, if not most, of the stances taken by folks in office. Sadly, the Civil War conflict was resolved through bloodshed, not bi-partisanship, and perhaps violent protest is inevitable. Sadly, it has worked in the past.

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