The historian Alan Brinkley has observed that we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress â€” and therefore government as a whole â€” has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education.
I’d very much like to read Professor Brinkley’s analysis of why that is true. Rich blames political polarization, the corruptions of special interest, and a lack of leadership in Congress and in particular the Senate. I think most of us would agree with Rich’s analysis.
But, while I couldn’t find Brinkley’s precise argument about why Congress is so ineffectual, there are clues to his thinking in an op ed he wrote in September 2008. In “The Party’s Over,” Brinkley discusses the role political parties played in government in the past and says that role fundamentally has changed in the past 40 years. The problem, he says, is that we’re moving into a post-partisan world.
That’s way out of line with conventional wisdom, but hear him out. Before the 1960s, Brinkley says, party loyalty played a stabilizing role in American politics. This was partly because party loyalty was more important to most Americans than ideology.
The two major parties in the late 19th century had few policy differences and, on the whole, shared a common, conservative philosophy; but that was of little importance to the way in which the political process worked. Few voters seemed to care. They were not much committed to their candidates, but they were passionately committed to their parties — in much the same way many people today care about baseball or football teams. Party loyalty, like fan loyalty today, had little to do with most people’s economic or social interests, but it inspired great passion nevertheless.
The two major parties, whether Whigs and Federalists or Democrats and Republicans, both represented a spectrum of opinions and positions. Generally, IMO, one party tended to skew more or less progressive than the other, but this role relative to the other party shifted over time. A century ago, for example, the Republican Party on the whole was the more progressive of the two.
Also, conventional wisdom about each party’s proclivities shift over time. For example, I remember adults of the 1950s and 1960s stoutly declaring that Democrats liked to start wars to boost the economy. I haven’t heard that one lately.
The point is that in the past a political party was not expected to be as rigidly and narrowly ideological as we seem to want them to be today. In fact, Brinkley says, through most of American history the parties were a “bulwark against factional anarchy.” Because each party enjoyed robust and reliable support from a citizen base while representing a spectrum of views, “reaching across the aisle” was not so difficult nor so politically perilous.
Further, before the 1960s it was usually the case that the president and the congressional majority were of the same party, and the president’s party played a vital role in ensuring their president had a successful administration. Ultimately, his political success was their political success as well.
Now, you’ve got one party that has locked itself in a tiny ideological box, to the point that it cannot be worked with. President Obama spoke to this on Friday —
I’m not suggesting that we’re going to agree on everything, whether it’s on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me.
I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.
I saw some rightie blog posts that called out this remark, and the bloggers clearly were baffled by it. They had no idea what Obama was saying here. But of course, the President is exactly right. The Republicans have done such a good job persuading the party base that Democrats are the Devil Incarnate that a Republican who compromises with them at all is risking his career. Conceding so much as half a stale doughnut to a Democrat can get a Republican targeted to be taken out in the next primary by somebody more rigid and uncompromising.
Meanwhile, the Dems have turned into the “every man for himself” party. Their personal political careers are no longer tied to their president’s success. They’ll support him if and when it is politically expedient to do so. They’ll turn against him if and when it is politically expedient to do so. This leaves the President in a weakened and more vulnerable position than were presidents of the past. It also set the stage for a handful of Democratic senators to sink the party’s signature legislative issue, health care reform, without fear of punishment.
“Today, untethered from the party system, many voters seize increasingly not on issues that affect their lives, but on whatever simply catches their interest — inflammatory social issues, personalities, and even lapel pins,” Brinkley writes. Beneath that, IMO, is a kind of ideological tribalism that is in many ways more primitive than the party loyalties of the past. No issue — lapel pins are an example — is so trivial it can’t be turned into an effective dog whistle.
However, these days on the Right the dog whistles aren’t coming from the party as much as from right-wing media personalities and their corporate sponsors. IMO the departure of Karl Rove left a vacuum that no one within the party was able to fill, and the Koch Foundation et al. were all too happy to charge in and fill the void.
Both parties are guilty of being more responsive to special interests than to their constituents, but at the moment the actual leadership of the Republican Party is almost irrelevant. Weirdly, as we see in the “tea party” movement, the Party’s lemming base is more loyal to the special interests than they are to the party. Or, at least, the special interests are doing a better job of dog-whistling these days, and they are no longer relying on the GOP to do their dog whistling for them.
Thanks to right-wing media and the phenomena of astroturfing, the Powers That Be can manipulate the base directly without the GOP having to be involved. But of course this puts elected Republicans in an even tighter box, since they have no following except by the grace of the Corporate/Media Overlords. This is another reason why softening their positions and working with Democrats even a little bit is political suicide for Republicans.
The Dems have the opposite problem, since much of what might be the national Democratic Party base is actually at odds with the corporate powers and occasionally at odds with some legislators’ more conservative voter base. Further, I don’t think Washington Dems count on progressives to be all that reliable a base. So individual Dems make individual calculations about how “progressive” they can allow themselves to be and still be re-elected. And, as I said, since party loyalty is no longer a determining factor in elections, it is less and less a determining factor in individual Democrats’ legislative positions.
So, while the Republicans are rendered dysfunctional by being locked in a tiny ideological box, Dems are rendered dysfunctional by a lack of cohesion — the party of Know Nothings and the party of Do Nothings.
Whenever I bring up parties some genius always chirps that what we need is a third party. Beside the fact that third parties can’t win national elections in the U.S., I think this is a variation on Sara Robinson’s third fallacy — the belief that the key to enacting progressive legislation is packing Congress with politicians who think the way we do. If we don’t do something to change the nation’s political culture, there is no reason to believe such a party would be any more effectual than the Dems are now, because that third party would soon fall prey to the same corruptions that got to the Dems.
It’s clear to me that a matrix of reforms is needed to restore the government to something approximating competence, including media reform as well as reform of governmental institutions. I still fear things haven’t gotten bad enough yet to make such reform possible.