Is ‘hyperpartisanship’ paralysing American politics?

It is not a clash of ideologies but rather an empty bickering over nothing of much substance that makes the presidential campaign seem so shrill and divided.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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A key question emerging from the 2008 American presidential election campaign is: should American politics move beyond partisanship?

The candidates have positioned themselves in relation to this issue. Democrat Barack Obama would certainly answer ‘yes’; he presents himself as the ‘post-partisan’ candidate (1). Among the Republican crowd, John McCain has most prominently staked out this territory, saying the problem is that Washington politicians ‘put party before country’ – something he vows not to do.

But not every contender agrees. John Edwards says Democrats need to rally against Republicans and corporate interests, which he argues are obstacles to reform. And Hillary Clinton, characteristically, seems to want to have it both ways – appealing to primary voters on the grounds that she is fighter for Democratic interests but also a Senator who has proven that she can work with Republicans in Congress. Her critics certainly believe she is too partisan and polarising.

The fact that McCain is currently leading the Republican field, and Obama is, although trailing Clinton, strongly contending, suggests that the post-partisan sales pitch is connecting with a significant section of American society. Indeed, many have remarked on a new factor in this year’s election: the public appears tired of Washington gridlock and party-political squabbles, and apparently yearns for a politician who can rise above the morass.

In such times, it is not surprising that political analysts also tend to focus on the issue of partisanship. Ronald Brownstein’s The Second Civil War tackles it head-on. Brownstein – a former Los Angeles Times journalist and now political director of Atlantic Media Co. and columnist for the National Journal – believes, as the subtitle of his book puts it, ‘extreme partisanship has paralysed Washington and polarised America’. He says the US has failed to make progress against a number of challenges – such as its dependence on foreign oil, the need for healthcare coverage for all, and the problems of border security, climate change and Islamic terrorism – because ‘the day-to-day functioning of American politics now inhibits the constructive compromises between the parties required to confront these problems’.

Brownstein devotes about half of his book to a history of party politics from 1896 to the present, identifying phases of greater or lesser cooperation. Unfortunately, it too often reads like a search to explain all positive developments as the result of bipartisanship, and put all negative events down to inter-party strife. He says the recent period’s ‘hyperpartisanship’ is historically unique. While recognising that ‘there never was a golden age’, he argues that today ‘the political system is more polarised than the country. Rather than reducing the level of conflict, Washington increases it. That tendency, not the breadth of the underlying division itself, is the defining characteristic of our era and the principal cause of our impasse on so many problems.’

In particular, Brownstein says the Republican Party has contributed more than the Democrats to the cycle of polarisation. Since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and especially since Bush’s election in 2000, the party has become a ‘centrally directed, ideologically coherent institution’. Bush has pursued an aggressive agenda that splits the country and relies mainly on its extremist ‘base’ of supporters. While not the ‘principal engine’ of polarisation, the Democrats have also responded in kind, thus ratcheting up the conflict and acrimony. For example, he notes that Republicans and Democrats stand with their own party on about 90 per cent of the votes, a level ‘unimaginable’ a generation or two ago.

Brownstein’s book is a plea for politicians to move beyond partisanship. He puts forward a number of suggestions, including specific reforms to the electoral process (such as opening up primaries to non-party members), a consensus-based policy agenda that blends ideas from both parties, and leadership that is inclusive. In fact, you could consider this the Obama playbook.

On the other side of this partisanship debate there is Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal. Krugman is best known for his New York Times op-ed columns, but his day job is professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Like Brownstein, Krugman plunges into the past to attempt to explain today’s situation. He argues that Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal created a democratic and egalitarian society, a middle-class nation with greater income parity than before. But, starting about 30 years ago, ‘movement conservatives’ such as William Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan emerged to dominate politics, and in the process undermined the New Deal. The result is a more unequal society and corrupt politics, a ‘second Gilded Age’. Government policy, not anonymous economic forces, created widening income inequalities, and conservatives succeeded by exploiting racial and other divisions.

Krugman, like Brownstein, identifies increased partisanship as a problem, but he believes it is one-sidedly coming from the conservatives in and around the Republican Party: ‘The reason there is so much hatred between the parties today is that beginning in the 1970s the GOP became, once again, a party defined by its opposition to taxes on the rich and benefits for the poor and middle class, and [it is] willing to do whatever it takes to promote that agenda.’ In contrast, the Democrats, he argues, have not undergone any corresponding radicalisation.

Krugman believes that the US is on the verge of a ‘great era of reform’. But he reaches the opposite conclusion to Brownstein: he believes more, not less, partisanship is needed in order to usher in new political programmes. He calls for progressives to engage in a consciously partisan effort to introduce a ‘new New Deal’, headlined by universal healthcare. Consider it the Edwards (or anti-Obama) playbook. Indeed, in recent articles Krugman has called Obama ‘naive’ and ‘less progressive than his rivals on matters of domestic policy’ (2).

So what are we to make of all this talk about partisanship? Although other presidential candidates in the past have called for overcoming divisions (Bush described himself as ‘a uniter, not a divider’), the question of a partisan divide has now become the central focus in debates about American politics.

The first point to note is that the current form of partisanship is often mischaracterised as an ideological conflict. For instance, both Brownstein and Krugman contend that the recent period has been ideologically charged, with the Republicans in particular having a self-interested agenda. But this partisanship has not been a battle of ideas. Ironically, it has been fuelled by a lack of strongly competing ideas. Relative to Europe, America’s politics has always been less ideological. And today, America is going through an even more consistently anti-ideological era, in which the traditional left-right divide over fundamental issues has dissipated. Neither side today puts forward a plan to transform society: no untrammeled free market, nor government control of the commanding heights of the economy.

Consider the Republicans during the recent Bush administration. If there is one thing Brownstein and Krugman agree on, it is that the Bush regime has been deeply partisan. Indeed, the Republicans are now widely considered to be myopic ideologues who have, on the basis of a slim majority, pushed through extreme ideas. But a look at their record tells a different story.

Bush entered office with the unconfident slogan ‘compassionate conservatism’, which clearly implied that the traditional brand of conservatism had flaws. To the dismay of many erstwhile supporters, he then set about increasing government spending, including on Medicare, the great symbol of the welfare state that conservatives were supposed to be dismantling. Combined with huge military outlays relating to the Iraq war and (temporary) tax cuts, Bush has increased the federal deficit to $163 billion in 2007 (and it is projected to increase further in 2008), which hardly qualifies as conservative fiscal stewardship.

He signed into law the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the most comprehensive regulation of business since the New Deal era, and has regularly chided business to show ‘corporate responsibility’. Despite having a majority in both houses after the 2004 election, Bush and his fellow Republicans could not reform Social Security. And his proposed immigration reforms fell flat, as he tried to accommodate multiple constituencies.

Rather than being guided by, and seeing through, a principled ideology, the Bush administration has displayed inconsistency, often swayed by circumstances rather than influencing events. This is particularly true of the Iraq mission, which has not had a clear purpose and plan. It was also the case in response to Hurricane Katrina (once Bush did respond): in the face of a natural disaster and criticism, Bush dropped his economic principles and called for an FDR-like aid and rebuilding package. And, judging by the pronouncements from the Republican crop of candidates for president (who are trying to outdo one another in promising subsidies for the Florida insurance industry in a pathetic bid for votes), it looks like this kind of making it up on the hoof will continue.

The Democrats have also vacated the ideological field. Bill Clinton’s policy of ‘triangulation’ – an approach that fell between the old Democratic views and his Republican opponents’ stances – effectively sought to turn opportunism into a principle. In his 2004 bid for the presidency, John Kerry had few true, clear ideological differences with Bush: Kerry indicated he would maintain most of Bush’s tax cuts; he promised to continue fighting the ‘war on terror’; even their positions on same-sex marriage were close. During the Bush years, the Democrats in Congress have hardly put up much opposition, most notably going along with the Iraq invasion. In November 2006 the Democrats gained a majority in both houses, but little has been heard from them since.

Politics is, as Frank Furedi has argued, exhausted and emptied of meaning (3). Not so long ago, George Bush Senior was ridiculed for referring to the ‘vision thing’ – something he clearly lacked. But today expectations are even lower: politicians are not challenged to produce a vision; instead, they are judged according to whether they can get along with other politicians in a non-partisan way.

The partisanship that is complained about so much today is real. But rather than being a reflection of deep-seated ideological conflicts, it shows how the politics of personality has descended into petty bickering. For example, it is often noted how, in the past, politicians were known to share a drink: President Reagan used to have drinks with the House Speaker Tip O’Neill in the 1980s. Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refers to Bush as a ‘liar’ and a ‘loser’ (4).

More generally, politics, in the absence of debates over major political issues, has become focused on issues of personal identity and lifestyle. Battles over ‘values’ issues – such as gay marriage, abortion, religion, gun control, flag-burning and the Pledge of Allegiance – are more likely to be raised. In the 2004 election there was much talk about the divide between blue-state Democrats and red-state Republicans. Commentators often portrayed the two worlds in cultural terms (for example, Nascar dads vs Coastal latte-drinkers) and as polar opposites. When a supposedly ‘political’ comment is actually a criticism of another’s lifestyle, it’s not surprising that it can lead to an angry response.

Party politicians have adapted to, and consolidated, this divisive outlook. For example, Brownstein quotes one of Bush’s senior political advisers as saying the philosophy was ‘50 plus one of the country and Congress’. In other words, the Bush administration preferred to mobilise the conservative ‘base’ of the party and rule by a razor-thin majority rather than attempt to win over any other people. Brownstein regards this as proof of Bush’s ruthlessly partisan approach. But it is more telling that the Republican party leadership perceived allegiances as being essentially frozen, and felt forced into this risky strategy. Affiliations were seen as rock solid because they were based on personal identities, and were thus more or less unchangeable; if your pitch is based on appealing to gun-owners, you can’t easily reach out to those who don’t own guns.

This type of ‘politics’ is not an edifying sight, and over time, the public has been turned off by it. Krugman may be right that the Republicans have contributed more to the current state of affairs (if only because they have been in power), but, unfortunately for him, many blame both parties equally. This could be seen in 2006, when corruption charges against Republican representative Tom DeLay and Republican-linked lobbyist Jack Abramoff led Democrats to establish a campaign against a ‘culture of corruption’ among Republicans; yet after authorities found alleged bribe money in the freezer of Democrat congressman William Jefferson, the campaign backfired and the ‘culture of corruption’ was said to have consumed the whole of Washington.

Given the petty bickering that passes for politics today, the fact that at least a section of society is rejecting partisanship is understandable and potentially positive. The rise of post-partisans like Obama and McCain represents a reaction to what is seen as a decadent and uninspired political realm. Younger voters in particular are hoping that something might change. Unfortunately, however, this rejection of partisanship may at the same time be accompanied by a deeper cynicism about political ideas and political engagement. Right now, there’s some optimism about the possibility of a post-partisan politician like Obama getting elected and changing things for the better – but the emptiness of his and other post-partisans’ proposals are setting the stage for future disappointment (5).

One necessary ingredient for taking politics forward is to look to the future. What’s noticeable about both Brownstein and Krugman is how strongly they wish to go back to an idealised, pre-partisan past. Krugman’s vision of postwar America is particularly nostalgic, referring to his youth’s ‘paradise lost’. When Krugman says that ‘liberals are, in an important sense, conservative’, he is right; when he says ‘those who call themselves conservative are deeply radical’, he is not. Both liberals and conservatives today are fearful of change and what the future may bring; on that, the partisans are united.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, by Ronald Brownstein, is published by The Penguin Press, 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman, is published by WW Norton & Company, 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

(1) See Getting to Grips with Obama-mania, by Sean Collins, 8 January 2008

(2) Big Table Fantasies, New York Times, 17 December 2007 and Responding to Recession, New York Times, 14 January 2008

(3) Politics of Fear, by Frank Furedi, 2005.

(4) The Closing of the American Mind, Newsweek, 22 December 2007

(5) What Hope for real Change in America, spiked, 9 January 2008

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