Monday, November 6, 2017

Polarization, we need more, not less, but of the right kind

Sam Rosenfield, in The Boston Review, based on his forthcoming book, The Polarizers (2018).
“We ought to have two real parties,” Franklin Roosevelt remarked to an aide in 1944, “one liberal, and the other conservative.” This was a wish rather than an observation given the sizeable contingent of conservative Democrats who allied with Republicans to thwart New Deal legislative initiatives. Roosevelt had tried to address this problem in 1938 when he stumped, unsuccessfully, for liberal primary challengers to some of his chief Democratic congressional critics. And six years later, he made his comment about “real parties” in the midst of secret preparations for another attempt at a top-down realignment: forging an alliance with his moderate Republican opponent of 1940, Wendell Willkie, on behalf of a new party combining the liberal wings of the existing Democratic and Republican parties. Willkie had responded favorably to the idea, lamenting that “both parties are hybrids,” but his untimely death that year scotched the effort.

In the wake of such failed gambits, the political system that developed during the New Deal years and flourished in the two decades following World War II demarcated a distinct and unusual era of depolarization in national politics. Because the major ideological divides of the period cross-cut rather than reinforced the partisan divide, most lawmaking was carried out via bipartisan coalitions. With parties divided internally (especially the electorally dominant Democrats), congressional power was decentralized from party leaders to powerful and autonomous committee chairs who, thanks to seniority, were disproportionately longtime incumbents from the one-party South.

Norms of civility and across-the-aisle camaraderie were powerful. “Integrity crosses party lines,” a Republican told one scholar in the 1950s. “You rely on some of your Democratic colleagues equally.” The strategic logic of constructive engagement during periods of divided government was epitomized by Democratic congressional leaders’ posture toward Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. “We are going to look upon the president’s recommendation with kindliness,” Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn said in 1955, “because he is the leader of our country. We are not going to be against [his program] just because a Republican president has recommended it.” Remarks such as this contributed to a lasting impression of the era as a time of staid consensus, but deep and ideologically charged disagreements still abounded in U.S. life and politics. The party system, however, served to muzzle rather than clarify those disagreements.

Such a system facilitated legislative productivity—of a particular kind. A system of ad hoc bipartisan coalitions and decentralized lawmaking via committees accentuated the localism and incrementalism intrinsic to Congress. The era’s clubby deal making proved conducive to small-bore legislation serving parochial interests and was usually less friendly to comprehensive and coherent programmatic agendas. That very parochialism, in turn, helped office-holders to build localized support and to disconnect themselves from their party’s national reputation when necessary. In 1972, the election year that won twenty-nine-year-old Joe Biden a Senate seat, the rate of split-ticket voting in the United States reached a twentieth-century high.

That world is, of course, long gone. Rates of party discipline and polarization in Congress began slowly to rebound just a few years into Biden’s Senate career, followed later by a resurgence of partisanship within the mass electorate. Though a large library could be filled with the scholarly investigations of why and how that transformation took place, most analysts would agree that close to the heart of the process was the ideological sorting out of the two parties. By the late twentieth century, we finally had the “real” parties that Roosevelt had called for.
Here's what polarization got us:
The world the polarizers made—today’s world—reflects many of the systemic changes that responsible party advocates wanted six decades ago. Contemporary parties are not only more cohesive and distinct than at mid-century, they are also more disciplined when in power. At least during periods of unified partisan control of the federal government, party cohesion can facilitate the passage of major reform, as seen in the big-league regulatory and social legislation passed during Barack Obama’s first two years in office.

During those periods of unified government, lines of responsibility and accountability are also clearer—something that Republicans are realizing as they struggle to get major but unpopular bills over the legislative finish line while eyeing their midterm election prospects next year. Voters now regularly face high-stakes choices over fundamentally different public-policy directions, and their views of the parties have sharpened accordingly. Americans are much more likely than they used to be to tell surveyors that there are meaningful differences between the parties’ stances and to correctly match the right party with its ideological disposition.
What went wrong:
For almost everyone, our current political system feels less than satisfactory, to put it mildly. What did responsible party advocates—who were not fortune-tellers, after all—get wrong? Their core oversights concerned psychology and institutions, respectively.

First, they underestimated the virulence of party polarization in practice. Political psychology and public opinion research confirms what so many of us have experienced. When partisan team spirit becomes reinforced by shared substantive beliefs on core issues, peoples’ partisan identities become a more intensely felt component of their self-identities. Righteous passion for one’s own side intensifies while distrust of and hostility toward the other side deepens. Motivated reasoning and perceptual blinders hinder our ability to deliberate, to learn from those we disagree with, to change our minds or accept compromises.
If the mid-century responsible-party advocates underestimated polarization’s behavioral spillovers, they also failed to anticipate the dysfunctions that would result from disciplined programmatic parties operating within the country’s Madisonian constitutional system. Our political structure is famously fragmented and laden with “veto points.” Legislation must survive an obstacle course of hurdles, bottlenecks, and deathtraps to become law, from the committee process through passage by two coequal legislative chambers right up to the president’s decision to sign or veto. The proliferation of actors able to block policy and the requirement for legislation to receive concurrent majority support in highly distinct legislative bodies (one of which normally requires a filibuster-proof supermajority) means that legislation typically depends on some minority-party support. Parliamentary-style party discipline makes that kind of legislating more difficult, especially by enabling and encouraging minority parties to obstruct the process rather than participate in it. ...

Most importantly of all, these analysts failed to anticipate that divided government would become a frequent occurrence after World War II. This was an understandable oversight given the rarity of divided government in U.S. history until then, but it was a momentous one. As the latter six years of Barack Obama’s tenure most recently showed, giving hostile and disciplined parties simultaneous control over coequal parts of the government is a recipe for grinding stalemate at best and chronic crisis—budget shutdowns, constitutional showdowns, default scares—at worst.
What to do?
How best to respond politically to inequality is hardly a settled question, but given the GOP’s existing commitments, it is likely that part of the answer will involve a more rather than less disciplined, ideological, and aggressive left-of-center political party. If the Democratic Party became the vehicle for meaningfully redressing inequality that would itself be a polarizing development.

Extending the point further, a two-party system leaves little room to avoid the fray in pursuing change—try as so many do. The renaissance of civic activism that “resistance” to Trump inspired after the election, for example, has come in countless forms, but one noticeable tendency in much of it has been an aversion to explicitly partisan forms of organization-building and mobilization. But meaningful resistance requires power, and the chief means of winning that power are electoral and partisan ones. To effectively counter the very hatreds and pathologies that seem so endemic to the age, in other words, progressives have no choice but to get into the thick of the action and fight. Doing so would only “worsen” polarization in U.S. politics, but it might just save U.S. democracy.

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