On the Origins of Partisan Dysfunction: No Idea is More-Tired Than “Changing Washington”

Brookings Institution Congressional scholar Thomas Mann and American Enterprise Institute Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein have just published a book with the spoiler title It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.  Their thesis, which they discuss a bit in a recent interview for National Public Radio, is that our current partisanship paralyzing Congress (and gripping some closely-divided State governments as well) isn’t just not business as usual, but it’s damaging the efficacy of our public institutions.  They also assert that (the radicalization of) the Republican Party is to blame, period.

When I mentioned this proposition recently, I promptly received a rejoinder that, if the Tea Party could find a non-partisan Presidential candidate to deliver a message of making America strong again, he or she would take the Electoral College by storm.

This very sentiment is either symptomatic or a partial cause of the trouble we’re in.

I suspect that a majority of voting Americans (well, in 1992, 1996 and 2000 a plurality) embraced this message (with some variations, of course) when they elected President Carter in 1976, President Reagan in 1980, President Clinton in 1992, President W. Bush in 2000–wait, W. didn’t win the popular vote or, in all serious probability, Florida–and President Obama in 2008. Each of these Presidents promised that they would be different, argued (even with some plausibility in then-Senator Obama’s case) that they weren’t a part of the Washington establishment, that they would “change the tone” (George W. Bush’s phrase, embodying a sentiment he at least legitimately followed until September 11th) and rise above partisan politics, and deal with those bread-and-butter (or moral, or both?) issues to which the aforementioned Washington establishment is tone-deaf.

If we’ve been getting this message from successful Presidential candidates since 1976, and the country is supposedly going down the tubes, what could be the explanation? Is the message always and everywhere insincere? Is the message well-intentioned and serious, but the exogenous pressures of politics always enough to domesticate the reformer? Are We, the People (at least in voting majorities) actually no better at seeing past the b.s. than politicians are in transcending it, vainly trusting in our mysteriously-profound judgment of politicians but then gullibly believing that THIS politician isn’t a career political insider just because he or she says so?

Before I could respond to this expression of (Conservative-populist) optimism, a friend was ready with a quotation, spoken by the Chorus from Aristophanes’ ancient play The Clouds.  (By the way, the Chorus in that play represented the floating clouds themselves; he was making a point in having them celebrate Athenians’ democratic political instincts during the intermission.)  The line from the play: “You Athenians – you don’t put up with such injustice – you knew this Cleon was a rat and you threw him out and elected – Cleon!”

My friend’s point in quoting the Aristophanes play “The Clouds” is to suggest the latter–that we think much of our competence to judge politicians considering how often they manage to dupe us. The quote is from the intermission of that play, where the Chorus applauds the people of democratic Athens for being so good at “blundering through,” granting vast power in the Assembly to 1 populist, then finding he’s a crook, and rallying behind another, all the while applauding themselves for being so much more-moral and insightful than the politicians they follow uncritically for so long.

The Liberal Ironist is nowhere near as cynical about this as he sounds. I don’t despise or deeply-distrust politicians. I do share my friend’s cynicism (if he’ll allow that) towards populist reformers both because I think they claim a lot of complicated issues are simple (which gives ordinary and sometimes quite-careless people an excuse to get angry and blame someone personally for generational and international trends in commerce, technology, and consumption habits) and because what they often call a “non-partisan” and “broadly-popular” movement tends to be highly-partisan. The Tea Party is a great example. I began to wonder: How many people believe the Tea Party is a non-partisan movement? I gave them a pretty sympathetic hearing when they 1st emerged (I actually believed that they might be able to deliver Congressional Republicans from their post-2008 nihilism, heh!), but I never thought they were non-partisan for a second. The Tea Party is about making the Republican Party into the Conservative Party, period. They elected most of the freshman class in the House of Representatives following the 2010 Midterm elections, and what was the result? We now have the most-Republican House of Representatives since the mid-1940s, and the most-partisan House since just after the Civil War. That is not a non-partisan movement, it is a movement that thinks the Republican Party is not partisan enough–an idea I just can’t understand considering several of President Obama’s initiatives from his first 2 years weren’t supported by a single Republican in at least 1 chamber or the other.

The Liberal Ironist doesn’t think partisanship is inherently-bad. As this blog’s namesake Richard Rorty put it in his elaboration on a person’s “final vocabulary,” there are sentiments we hold that we do not submit for rational scrutiny, because we believe in them.  Ask probing questions about them and we’ll simply become angry and repeat ourselves. We’re partisans for these sentiments. The simple fact is that the 2 parties don’t believe the same measures will restore America’s prestige and promise, at least at home. (Democrats’ and Republicans’ current differences over foreign policy, interestingly, are almost an illusion.) Personally, I think Congressman Ryan’s budget plan (which has taken the Republican Party by storm) would endanger millions of Americans who live in poverty, foist the next generation of retirees back into the hated private insurance market, dangerously defund our highways and mass transit, reduce our technological competitiveness and essentially abandon students from poorer families. I’m pretty sure I believe this for the same reasons I’m a Democrat, not because I “see through the b.s. and just want the politicians to wake-up.” Frankly, I don’t really know what that means.

What I don’t like about current partisanship (and I mostly blame Republicans for this) is that, rather than accept that the other party has some good points–at least about their own constituents, whom as fellow-citizens really deserve to be heard–we have let ourselves believe that the other party is simply an alliance of the crass and the bigoted (the Democratic myth about Republicans) or that they are a motley crew of misfits who don’t value work and don’t love their country (the Republican myth about Democrats). This suggests one’s party shouldn’t listen to the other and should just listen to what “(40% of) the American People” want. Now we’re more-stalemated than ever. It’s populism and our vain conceit that we see everything clear that got us here in the 1st place; if we never give the 2 parties space to work with each other, they won’t be working at all.

It’s the activists that did this to the parties.


One thought on “On the Origins of Partisan Dysfunction: No Idea is More-Tired Than “Changing Washington”

  1. Brian

    The hyperpartisanship is really the result of the convergence of the two major political parties on economic issues. Reagan and his heirs have dragged BOTH major parties to the right on economics. Even Democratic presidents have pushed the conservative economic orthodoxy of deficit reduction, tax cuts, heavy cuts to social services and the fraud known as “free trade.”

    Because the two parties have so heavily converged on economic issues, the only real difference between them is on social issues. Since this is really only a small handful of key issues – whether gays, women and Hispanics deserve to be treated as human beings – the two parties play these up to the hilt. You even have a Democratic president who’s running on a health care system originally conceived and implemented by his Republican opponent… who’s now attack what he created. I can’t think of anything that demonstrates the convergence more perfectly.

    The two parties need to pretend that America as they know (er, want) it will end if the other party wins. Homosexuality will be made mandatory in schools or abortion will be banned, etc… even though none of these things have happened when either party has controlled both the presidency and the Congress. It’s called the psychosis of small differences. They already agree on so much, they can’t compromise on the few things they disagree with or else they will be 100% identical.

    What’s the solution? Vote for smaller party and independent candidates. The US is probably the only democracy in the world with so few (two) parties represented in their national legislature – even in democratic paragons like Russia and Zimbabwe. This won’t solve all the problems. But it makes no sense to whine about Democrats and Republicans all the time and then vote for Democrats and Republicans all the time.


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