Continued polarization could lead to awful consequences. “The country is in dire straits, and … we are tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians .… We can’t do squat,” said Keith Poole, an expert on political polarization from the University of Georgia. “The tea party whack jobs are right: We’re bankrupt.… But we’re just drifting, drifting toward the falls.”
PARLIAMENT, OR CONGRESS?
Congressional leaders now sound, and act, like their parliamentary counterparts in foreign lands—voting in rigid blocs and, in times of legislative gridlock, calling for an election to put the question to the voters.
“On big issues—taxes and revenues and health care—as the president himself said, we are not going to agree,” says Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican from Virginia. “That’s for the election.”
Fair enough, save that the parliamentary peg does not fit in the holes of the American constitutional system. In Ottawa, New Delhi, or Westminster, a new prime minister emerges from the legislative branch and takes office with a unified majority, almost guaranteed to get his or her program enacted.
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But America’s Founders were wary of parliamentary majorities; they fought a revolution against one that they perceived as corrupt and tyrannical. They designed a system to hobble a majority and force the country’s varied regions, states, and interests to cooperate.
“There is a mismatch between our new, parliamentary-style parties and the governing system in which they have to operate,” says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution and the coauthor, with Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, of It's Even Worse Than It Looks, an upcoming book on the dismal state of Congress. “The Framers had in mind, with the Constitution’s separation of powers and checks and balances, a process of negotiation. But now these negotiations don’t take place. The inclination is to oppose, obstruct, discredit, and nullify.”
Few in Washington believe that Cantor’s Republicans will respect President Obama’s mandate if he wins reelection. Their GOP counterparts in 1992 and 2008, as well as their Democratic counterparts in 2000, barely recognized the legitimacy of the newly elected chief executive, and there is little reason to think that the current crop of congressional Republicans—or Democrats—would defer to a leader from the rival party.
Would Cantor honor the electorate’s verdict if Obama wins in November? “That is a hypothetical I am not answering,” the majority leader says.
MARTYRS AND MYTHS
Some people welcome polarity. Jeffrey Bell is a conservative activist and theorist—a former aide to Ronald Reagan and past president of the Manhattan Institute—whose new book, The Case for Polarized Politics, argues that the inflexible persistence of America’s social conservatives is all that saves the nation from a cruel descent into socialist misery.
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“Polarization isn’t all bad.… When it comes to defending basic principles … polarization is a good thing,” Bell told the rambunctious young audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of thousands of conservative faithful earlier this month. “There is no truce on social issues … because the Left is relentless.”
But legislative leaders don’t have the freedom to operate as political theorists. They know they’re sent to Washington to get things done. So they deplore the situation and blame the other party. It is a self-perpetuating spiral, ensuring that the status quo stays quo.
“It is disappointing to me that the Republicans give so little cooperation to President Obama, when we gave so much cooperation to President Bush,” says Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader—an assertion that draws guffaws from Republicans.
The Democrats “rammed ‘Obamacare’ through the House, using every trick in the book to stifle dissent and circumvent the will of the American people,” Speaker John Boehner told CPAC. “We are allowing a wide-open process to repeal it.”
Adherents on each side have their own mythic moments—times when they held their hand out in a gesture of fellowship, only to have it spat upon.
For Democrats, the great double-cross came in the 2002 campaign when, after they gave President Bush all that he asked in that remarkable moment of national unity after the 9/11 attacks, GOP ads portrayed them as stooges of al-Qaida—even Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a wounded Vietnam War veteran. And House Republicans are still seething about the day in April 2010 when Ryan, after releasing a politically risky GOP budget proposal, was invited to the presidential response at Georgetown University. Sitting in the front row, expecting an olive branch, Ryan got a kick in the teeth. Obama offered no compromise, no reasonability. The president spouted “a bunch of demagoguery in the campaign mode,” Ryan says.