Political Animal


December 29, 2011 12:02 PM Partisanship and Gridlock

By Ed Kilgore

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.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of the Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.


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  • Gandalf on December 29, 2011 12:33 PM:

    It's an interesting post Ed but the real deal is money. Who spends it with who. If you want to examine history money poluting politics in exorbitant amounts is usually what brings down great empires. And unless we can control the amounts spent somehow we will become another footnote in history along the same lines.

  • Holly W on December 29, 2011 12:43 PM:

    It seems pretty clear to me reading the liberal... celebration, almost, of Ben Nelson's retirement that playing to the middle looks like poor politics. Did Nelson's constantly positioning himself as Obama's toughest senate vote then finally joining actually win over more conservatives than it alienated liberals? I realize Nebraska is a pretty Red State but I'm thinking about Truman's quote about a Democrat impersonating a Republican "They'll go with the real thing every time." At the same time Nelson retires, presumably scared off by polling, we see Ron Paul who, though I'm not too fond of most of his views, surging in Iowa proving one can succeed by expanding the field of voters. I'm saying all of this as someone who believes in realpolitik politics. I would accept a ConservaDem if it really were the only way to win in a Red State. But I think Democrats would be better off in a place like Nebraska with a Russ Feingold-type tweaked for Nebraska culture. Feingold, after all, was a true deficit hawk, a maverick willing to buck the party (but when his genuine principals dictated it; he exuded sincerity), and didn't feel tainted by corporate influence. In fact, he railed against it. Remember the paradox that a lot of Red States are actually partial to so-called "progressive" policies and cool to Republican ones. For instance, the wealthier paying more taxes before entitlements get cut. I'm guessing a paid-for jobs bill. I just think there's a way for a heartland candidate to choose from the menu of issues and mix progressivism and anti-corporatism with enough conservatism to be electable in a better way than Nelson did. Let's not forget Kathleen Sebelius was elected and re-elected statewide in Kansas.

  • Josef K on December 29, 2011 12:43 PM:

    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.

    Agreed, but why do just the Democrats have to have "more" of such members? Are we just taking it as granted that the Republicans will forever be reflexively insane and reactionary?

  • Ohioan on December 29, 2011 12:51 PM:

    "I was, after all, policy director for the Democratic Leadership Council for years"

    I would keep quiet about that, since the DLC supported eliminating Glass-Steagall and implementing NAFTA.

  • chi res on December 29, 2011 1:14 PM:

    someone who believes in realpolitik politics [does not equal] a Russ Feingold-type

  • kahner on December 29, 2011 1:26 PM:

    Just to pick a nit, I've always been taught that nauseous means “causing nausea” but nauseated means “feeling or suffering from nausea”. This has changed in modern usage so that the usages are interchangeable, but I still am annoyed by the new usage of nauseous.


  • c u n d gulag on December 29, 2011 1:30 PM:

    Carter really was the Obama of his day.

    He came in after Ford, and Nixon and Watergate, of course, promising "change."

    The push-back he had was that too many of the entrenched powers in DC felt threatened by him and the people he brought in. They felt he was coming to make too many changes, and fought him tooth and nail. Plus, Carter brought in people he knew from Georgia - shades of Clinton criticism, anyone?

    Carter got little help from anyone in DC.

    Also, this was right after The Church Committee hearings, post Vietnam, which set limits on the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and Carter and his Director of Central Intelligence Adm. Stansfield Turner worked to redefine the relationship between Congress and the Intelligence Community.

    Well, as you can imagine, the pissed-off a lot of people, and not just those in intelligence and Congress, but in the whole Military Industrial Complex.

    I've long believed that Carter was left out high-and-dry in the whole Iran Hostage Crisis.

    The NY Times had run articles for a whole week warning about a potential take-over of the US Embassy, but when if finally happened, the CIA gave the now very familiar, "Who would have thought that..."
    Well, the NY F*CKING Times did, assholes!
    And they wrote about it extensively.

    And so, Carter, who came in wanting to transform government, got chewed-up and spit-out in the process.

    At least Obama's only been chewed-on so far.
    We'll see what happens next November to see if the electorate expectorates him out of DC.

  • T2 on December 29, 2011 2:20 PM:

    Ben Nelson.....just go back two years and see what would have happened if the so-called Democrat would have voted with the Dems instead of the GOPers on a string of legislation.. Good riddance to him.

  • Doug on December 29, 2011 7:31 PM:

    I imagine the whole "bi-partisan" thing can be traced back to the Constitutional Convention. Don't forget, the Federal government was designed to work in an atmosphere that might best be called "un-political" and by people who really had never experienced any politics much more organized than "Ins-vs-Outs". Nothing resembling "national" politics existed until 1788 and the immediate creation of Federalist and Anti-Federalist political parties presented the Founders with proof that they weren't perfect.
    It seems to me that the presumption that trying to attain a bi-partisan agreement is ALWAYS bad is as just as wrong as the opposite view that only goals that ARE "bi-partisan" are worthwhile. The devil's in the details and too many overlook that part of when searching for "bi-partisan" agreement. Perhaps the search for "bi-partisan" policies and agreements are merely modern attempts to revive the original intent of the Founders to establish a non-partisan polity?
    Which would certainly explain Republican antipathy to it; as they haven't shown any regard for any other of the Founders' ideas.
    Well, except for that "three fifths" thing...

  • lou archambault on December 30, 2011 4:56 PM:

    To date the representative mechanism, by default, has stolen the will of the people, theft by receipt of stolen identity, as state and federal legislative representation has held the will of the people in bondage. They have used the identity of the people without the people's consent, identity theft.

    The Conditions Surrounding the Republic Rule of the Democratic Federation:


  • Michael M. T. Henderson on December 30, 2011 7:31 PM:

    Remember what Will Rogers said about being a Democrat? We are disorganized particularly because we encompass so many different points of view. My hope is that the Republican Party will split, the loopy ones joining the Tea Party led, one might hope, by Donald Trump. The rest could stay on as the party of Eisenhower and Ford, acting in what they think is the whole country's best interest, rather than what their corporate masters pay them to think. That would give us the kind of Democratic majorities we enjoyed between 1950 and 1992. As LBJ predicted, the Medicare-enforced integration of hospitals and the 1964 Civil Rights Act did cost the Democrats the South (viz., Strom Thurmond's turncoat change to the GOP). But we still held both houses even with a Republican South until 1994, when the country moved to the right - though not with the cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face attitude that the present House majority and the Senate minority are showing. I haven't seen such unpatriotic behavior in my 70 years, though I suspect lots of bad stuff went on before, during, and after the Civil War.