Like my buddy Jonathan Bernstein, I, too, felt slightly nauseous reading John Avlon’s lament, in his tribute to the soon-to-be-departed Ben Nelson, for those halcyon days when Ds and Rs got together and fixed the country’s problems. To expand on Jonathan’s argument, I’d note that the absence of partisan polarization in the old days by no means meant there was no ideological polarization, which can produce just as much “gridlock” on important issues as the partisan variety, and can even be worse insofar as diverse parties work to maintain unity by ignoring them.
Jonathan mentions the ability of southern reactionaries to make maintenance of segregation the price of their support for the “progressive” Democratic Party prior to enactment of the Civil Rights Act. But civil rights wasn’t the only issue where maintenance of ideologically diverse parties caused “gridlock” on big issues, as illustrated by the bipartisan “Conservative Coalition” that fought, with considerable success, FDR’s economic initiatives after the early phase of the New Deal. Another case in point: the entire Second Party System prior to the Civil War, in which proslavery elements in both major parties succeeded in keeping the whole subject bottled up, with party unity serving as the perpetual excuse. Still another case in point: the post-Civil War party system, in which probusiness elements in both parties succeeded, until the Populist revolt, in quashing regulation of monopoly capitalism, even as the two parties wrangled endlessly over tariffs.
If all that ancient history seems irrelevant, look at the presidency so often compared to Obama’s, that of Jimmy Carter. There were plenty of conservative Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans still in Congress between 1977 and 1981. Was this a notably productive period of bipartisanship and national progress? No, of course not. There is always some degree of partisan polarization alongside ideological polarization. But weak parties with the inability to stand for relatively clear positions on big issues, or to impose party discipline to ensure their principles are implemented, simply tend to turn ideological polarization into inertia.
Sure, if your idea of “getting things done” is to set aside the subjects that really matter in order to tinker at the margins of the national agenda, then perhaps having parties that harbor people with fundamentally different ideologies sounds like a good thing. But unless you think of bipartisanship quite literally as an end in itself—which is another way of saying we shouldn’t have parties at all, or that their membership should be determined by ephemeral criteria of geography, sort of the way we choose sports allegiances—it’s kind of meaningless if not destructive.
I say all this, BTW, as someone who strongly dislikes rigid partisan litmus tests—I was, after all, policy director for the Democratic Leadership Council for years. But right now we have one major party with very strict rules for membership, called the Republican Party, and another that is largely content to let any Zell, Joe or Ben join. To suggest that the big problem in our political system is that Democrats don’t have enough Zells, Joes or Bens is to ignore contemporary realities in an extraordinarily willful manner.
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