Respond to this Article June 2004

Perverse Polarity

The mainstream media bemoans the lack of civility in Washington--but won't say who's responsible.

By Paul Glastris

About a decade ago, national news organizations regularly swooped in to various university campuses to report on the ideological battles then brewing there. Faculties and student bodies were bitterly divided over affirmative action, speech codes, and academic freedom. Archetypes of right (a musty old professor or a white male young Republican) and left (jargon-spouting activists or faculty members) could be found to represent the ideological poles, mutually hostile and philosophically uncompromising.

In one sense these descriptions reflected a certain objective truth: Campuses were indeed polarized. In another sense, though, they missed the story completely. The ideological gulf on campuses did not result from the right and left tugging equally hard in opposite directions. It resulted from the extremism of the academic left, which was seeking both radically to change the culture of the campus and, in many cases, to intimidate their critics into silence.

There's something similar about the way the national press has been describing the polarization of our political culture over the last few years. It is a cliché to observe that the parties have drawn further apart, the center no longer holds, and partisans on both sides have withdrawn further into mutual loathing and ever more-homogenous and antagonistic groupings. Where the analysis goes wrong is in its assumption, either explicit or implicit, that both parties bear equal responsibility for this state of affairs. While partisanship may now be deeply entrenched among their voters and their elites, the truth is that the growing polarization of American politics results primarily from the growing radicalism of the Republican Party.

This is the sort of reality that most journalists know perfectly well to be true but cannot bring themselves to say, though this increased polarization drives them crazy. Almost without exception, mainstream reporters in Washington see moderation and bipartisanship as inherently virtuous. (Indeed, reverence for these qualities is essentially the defining belief of the Washington establishment.) Read almost any account of bills becoming law, and you'll notice the reporter's obvious affection for centrists who work both sides of the aisle. Yet they are unable to honestly explain to readers what's causing the decline of bipartisanship, thanks to another form of press bias: The desire not to seem biased. As practiced by the modern press, "objective" journalism requires avoiding the appearance of favoring one party over the other--even when the facts merit such a treatment. That's why, when news stories discuss polarization, they bend over backward to avoid laying the "blame" on the political right.

Primary schooling

A classic example is a recent Washington Post column by David Broder, a justly-respected reporter and columnist famous for, and much beloved because of, his advocacy of bipartisanship. "The roots of political gridlock in Washington and of the hyper-partisanship dividing "red" and "blue" America," Broder wrote in May, can be seen in the fates of two lawmakers. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a moderate, survived a near-death primary challenge this spring, while Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), another veteran moderate, announced his retirement, paving the way for a likely Democratic takeover of his heavily-unionized district. These two races "illustrate how the ideological lines dividing the parties are being etched ever deeper," Broder opined, as if describing some impersonal geologic force. Indeed, Broder connected these two races to a decades-old realignment that "has been so gradual that its effects are often overlooked": the slow fading away of conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northern Republicans.

Broder is of course right that such a realignment has taken place. But the vast majority of truly right-wing Democrats defected to their natural modern home in the GOP years ago. The interesting question is what's driving the process now. Broder didn't venture a guess, but the answer is implicit in the examples he chose. Quinn is retiring from a party that has treated moderates like him with disdain. Specter was almost bumped off by Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a conservative hardliner whose campaign received substantial funding from ideologically-uncompromising right-wing groups such as the Club of Growth.

Nothing remotely like this has occurred on the Democratic side. Sure, a number of moderate-to-conservative Democratic Southerners, such John Breaux (D-La.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) are retiring this year. But with the exception of Zell Miller (D-Ga.), none seem to be doing so because of anger at, or pressure from, the liberal wing of their party. Quite the contrary: hand wringing over the loss of moderate Southern Democrats is a party-wide obsession. Indeed, Senate Democrats were so afraid of losing Miller's vote in the Senate that neither his frequent and virulent denunciations of the party leadership nor his decision to endorse Bush for re-election provoked a single public rebuke. (By contrast, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last month questioned the wisdom of cutting taxes during wartime, the GOP Speaker of the House, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) questioned whether McCain understood the meaning of sacrifice.) And it's hard to remember the last time a moderate Democratic senator faced an ugly, well-funded primary challenge by a hardcore left-liberal, the way Specter did from his right.

That the Democrats are still pretty congenial to their centrists suggests the degree to which the party has become, if not less partisan, then surely more ideologically moderate. Indeed, the recent Democratic primary in Pennsylvania illustrates the point. To challenge Specter in November, the state's Democratic voters chose Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.). A member in good standing of the New Democrat coalition in the House, Hoeffel represents a majority-Republican district and supported, among other things, Bush's No Child Left Behind Act and the Iraq war resolution.

An even better illustration is the Democratic presidential primary. While the entire field of candidates joined in harsh, partisan denunciations of President Bush, the results render laughable the idea that the party is somehow "moving to the left." Two candidates, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) offered traditional liberal-left positions (universal single-payer health care, an immediate pull-out from Iraq), yet garnered negligible shares of the vote. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), a labor-endorsed liberal populist, came in fourth in Iowa, failing even to win a majority of union members in that famously left-leaning caucus. Former Gov. Howard Dean, who ran as a liberal firebrand--despite a record as a fiscal conservative who won the NRA's endorsement in Vermont--famously fizzled. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who supported the invasion of Iraq and ran as a war hero, won the lion's share of delegates. The runners-up were Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a Southern moderate, and Wesley Clark, a retired four-star general who until recently had been a registered Republican. After locking up the nomination, Kerry highlighted his centrist policies (such as maintaining Bush's middle-class tax cuts), repeatedly refused to set a date for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, and, through surrogates, openly courted McCain for vice president.

Yet even when journalists' own evidence plainly shows that one party has become more moderate and the other more ideologically extreme, they can't bring themselves to say so. In March, USA Today reported that "President Bush is running for a second term in a more polarized atmosphere than any president since the Gallup Poll began measuring the partisan gap in presidential job approval." The story proceeded to divulge Bush's four-point plan to "deal with the polarized electorate." Here is the plan--as reported by USA Today--unabridged and in its entirety:

* Making few new proposals meant to satisfy conservatives
* Emphasizing tax cuts and other issues that appeal to voters in the middle
*Working to ensure that loyal Republicans turn out to vote
*Depicting Democratic candidate John Kerry as too far to the left for mainstream voters

Bush's plan, in other words, consists of eschewing new proposals and instead harping on old ones--tax cuts--that were originally designed to shore up the conservative base, while cranking up partisan loyalists and going negative on his opponent. It is, to say the least, a bit odd that Bush's plan was presented as a way to "deal with the polarized electorate" rather than as a fundamental cause of the polarization.

This kind of forced evenhandedness isn't just limited to the big national papers. Last February, Columbus Dispatch columnist Joe Hallett wrote:

This is a tough year for moderates. While they want the presidential campaign to focus on creating jobs, improving education, keeping the nation safe, and providing health and retirement security, legislative combatants in Washington and Columbus exploit the wedge issues that split the electorate. Overtime pay, faith-based funding, same-sex marriages, concealed weapons, abortion, charter schools, creationism in science classes, the official state fish-- these are the issues our federal and state lawmakers debate in a nation at war and a state bleeding jobs. Strategists from both parties use such issues to turn moderates into hardened partisans, forcing them into one extreme camp or the other.

This is a curious passage. Aside from the example of charter schools (which tend to have bipartisan support) and the state fish debate (about which I know nothing), the other issues Hallett lists are all policies that Republicans are pushing, mostly as wedges to divide Democrats from centrist voters.

Polar opposites

Back in March, The Washington Post ran a lengthy, widely-read series that attempted to explain how the polarization of American politics came about, but wound up illustrating the press' weird inability to state the obvious. "For voters in the middle," the Post complained, "this election may aggravate their feeling that politics no longer speaks to them, that it has become a dialogue of uncompromising extremes." Besides such exogenous factors as the end of the Cold War, the Post series laid the blame on two phenomena.

The first was the election of Ronald Reagan and the conservative ascendancy which followed, shifting the GOP's center of gravity away from the likes of such pragmatists as Eisenhower, Ford and Nixon toward a leader who "framed his presidency in ideological terms" and made it "uncomfortable for liberals to remain in the GOP."

But while it's true that his presidency marked a turning point in the conservative takeover of the GOP, Reagan was more ideologically flexible and open to working with Democrats than his rhetoric implied or conservatives today like to remember. Reagan's most distinct achievements remain marginal rate tax cuts and a military buildup. Each was supported by dozens of Democrats in both chambers. But he also raised taxes in the face of deficits, signed a dramatic arms control pact with the Soviet Union, and engineered a sweeping tax reform which forced the rich to shoulder a larger share of the tax burden. Moreover, while Reagan appointed many ideologues to his administration, he also gave important roles to many pragmatists, notably Howard Baker, Richard Darman, and James Baker. Liberals may have envied Reagan his popularity and disliked his policies, but he made it possible for Democrats to work with him, and they did.

How about the Post's second factor--Bill Clinton's presidency? "Though he campaigned as a moderate Democrat, and delivered on such longtime Republican goals as a balanced budget and welfare reform," the Post explains, "Clinton's administration ultimately proved highly divisive." But Clinton proved divisive not, as the article implies, because he or his party grew more uncompromising or extreme. Just the opposite: Clinton was dragging his party closer to the center. This was divisive within the Democratic Party, because liberals were betrayed and outraged by his challenges to traditional Democratic orthodoxy on such policies as welfare and crime. And it was divisive in Washington because the Republican Party was becoming so uncompromising and extreme that it found even a moderate Democrat in the White House completely unacceptable.

Here, too, the evidence is pretty clear. While scores of Democrats supported tax and spending blueprints offered up by Reagan and the first President Bush, not a single Republican in either house of Congress voted for Clinton's 1993 budget. The budget essentially renounced Keynesian spending advocated by economic liberals such as Robert Reich and embraced deficit reduction, a longtime goal of the business community and the mostly-Republican deficit hawks in Congress. But it also raised marginal rates on the wealthy a bit, so Republicans, many of whom had gone along with Reagan's tax increases, voted against Clinton's entire budget package.

Indeed, quite early on in Clinton's presidency, GOP leaders explicitly decided to make the failure of Clinton's presidency their overriding goal, regardless of, and indeed in spite of, his attempts to move to the middle. The most telling moment came during Clinton's second big initiative, health-care reform. By any objective measure, the United States had--and still has--a terrible system, which spent far more per capita on health care than any other country while leaving a higher percentage of our population uninsured than in any other advanced industrialized nation. While many Republicans were skeptical of Clinton's preferred solution to the problem, they at first accepted a responsibility to pass some sort of plan. Yet they came to be persuaded by the advice of conservative operative William Kristol, who urged in a series of influential memos that the GOP oppose the Clinton plan "sight unseen," and commit to sinking whatever plan was devised--on the grounds that successful passage of any plan would keep the Democratic Party in power. In keeping with this advice, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole even abandoned his own health-reform proposal, the better to create gridlock.

Bunkered hill

When the Republicans took over Congress in 1995, the polarization began to get even worse. In Reagan's time there still remained a strong sense in Washington that politics was not purely a zero-sum game between the parties. Democrats and Republicans shared certain goals in common--sometimes high-minded goals such as getting rid of loopholes in the tax code, and sometimes tawdry ones, such as protecting incumbents, but shared goals all the same. But fierce partisanship and demonization of the Democratic majority had helped the GOP take back Congress. (Then-Rep. Newt Gingrich once distributed a memo to his colleagues specifying which words to use when describing Democrats, from "corruption, crises, decay, deeper, destroy, destructive, devour" to "self-serving, sensationalists, shallow, sick.") Emboldened, the new GOP majority set out to systematically eliminate what remained of the capital's bipartisan political culture.

On the Hill, the old practice of resolving differences in committee and bringing to the floor bills that had large bipartisan support went out the window. In its stead emerged a top-down process whereby most legislation would be crafted by the GOP leadership and subjected to up-or-down votes by the rest of Congress. On many bills, especially those on which corporate lobbies have a keen interest, Republican leaders began to engineer party-line votes so as to isolate Democratic centrists--depriving them of opportunities to vote for compromises and build moderate records that would keep them in office in swing districts. Breaking precedent, Republicans began to exclude Democrats from conference negotiations on important bills and forbid them from offering alternative legislation or amendments of their own.

It's true that this sort of behavior was not unknown to Republicans when they were in the minority. During the late 1980s, for example, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) held open the floor vote on a crucial reconciliation bill for an extra 20 minutes past the traditional 15-minute period so as to corral an extra vote for the Democratic side. Republicans complained vehemently at the time and cited Wright's action for years after as an example of the Democratic majority's unfairness and lack principle. Yet since taking control of the House in 1995, analyst Norm Ornstein has observed, Republican leaders have gone over the 15-minute limit at least a dozen times. (Most recently, Hastert held open the vote on the Medicare prescription-drug bill for an extra three hours, basically until he had been able to pressure a few skeptical Republicans to vote for the leadership's bill.) Even small courtesies have fallen by the wayside. GOP leaders have denied the Democrats rooms in which to caucus and, as Michael Crowley reported in The New Republic last year, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), has decided to stop holding the committee's traditional bipartisan holiday party.

Even as they polarized the Hill, Republicans have also been doing their best to undermine the traditionally bipartisan lobbying culture on K Street. Beginning in the late 1990s, they launched an effort to purge Washington's lobbyist shops of Democrats and turn them into an appendage of the Republican Party. The bipartisan coloration that had previously characterized the business lobbies may not have been terribly edifying, but it was undeniably an important pillar undergirding the sense of shared purpose between the two parties.

The modern GOP, however, has no use for bipartisanship. As a conservative maxim originally coined by Dick Armey, the recently-retired Republican majority leader, puts it, "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape." It is almost impossible to imagine any leading Democratic politician or activist voicing the same sentiment. For better or for worse, they remain bound to the Washington establishment's notion that bipartisanship is a virtue to be striven for.

Meanwhile, the GOP is busy exporting its hypertrophied partisanship outside the Beltway, overturning even more previously-accepted standards of political behavior along the way. When Republicans won a majority in the Texas legislature in 2002, they proceeded--at the behest of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas)--to rearrange the congressional districts that had been drawn following the 2000 census, the first time in modern history that a legislature had redistricted in between the taking of censuses. The aim was to squeeze out six or seven conservative Democrats who usually voted with the GOP, simply because replacing them with conservative Republicans would cushion the GOP's majority in the House.

This GOP strategy is now spreading to other states. As the Denver Post's John Aloysius Farrell reported last year--in a rare article that put responsibility for increased polarization where it belonged--the legislative tactics pioneered by Washington Republicans are appearing in once-collegial state legislatures, where the differences between parties are usually not as apparent. "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals--and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship," leading conservative activist Grover Norquist explained to the Denver Post. Why? On the belief that, as Patrick Buchanan once articulated, if the country can be polarized between hard conservatives and hard liberals, the majority of Americans are more likely to take their chances with the former than with the latter. Yet unlike Farrell, most national pundits dare not state the strategy that conservatives themselves admit they are using to polarize state politics. Instead they affect the value-neutral, pox-on-both-houses tone that the otherwise estimable Washington Post columnist William Raspberry employed recently when he bemoaned the effects of gerrymandered redistricting. "Political campaigns are increasingly divisive," he wrote. "Moderate voices are marginalized in both major parties."

Choice point

Now, again, you could argue that there's nothing wrong with polarization--that the genteel traditions of old served only to muddle political choices and deny voters the opportunity to clearly express their preferences. After all, hewing to the center is well and good if you're satisfied with the political debate as it exists today. But many voters do not share the press' affinity for compromise and bipartisanship. A principled conservative may prefer the center as it existed before the New Deal, while a principled liberal may prefer the pre-Reagan center. And if you desire those sorts of dramatic changes, working with both parties may not be possible.

The point is not necessarily that the Republicans have done wrong by being partisan and ideological. The point is that they have clearly taken the lead in dismantling bipartisanship by uniting around a radically conservative agenda and consciously--even gleefully--defying the old unwritten rules of politics that once kept partisanship and ideology in check. The same simply does not hold true on the other side of the political spectrum. You can say a lot of things about the Democrats. You can say the party's grassroots loathes Bush just as intensely as Republicans loathed Clinton. You can say Democratic members of Congress have, belatedly, become less naive about making deals with the Bush administration. But you can't say Democrats have moved farther to the left. They have recognized a radical presidency for what it is--but that does not make them radical as well.

Reporters for mainstream outlets have a difficult job trying to write about one of the most divisive of subjects, politics, in a way that does not alienate their heterogeneous readership or call forth too many outraged emails challenging their fairness. But they ought to find a way to acknowledge the obvious truth that Republican radicalism is driving the polarization of American politics. That goes double for those journalists and pundits most pained by the loss of bipartisan civility in Washington. They do their cause no good by clinging to the fiction that America's political polarization is equally the fault of both parties. Moderation and compromise can return to the nation's capital only if and when the GOP itself moves back to the civil center--which, over the long term, is probably in the party's electoral interest as well. Some tough love and honest talk from the nation's top political writers might hasten that day.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of The Washington Monthly.


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