How Malpractice May Kill Our Politics

While partisans squabble, the Republican and Democratic parties are making their deathbeds.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
June 16, 2014, 5:36 a.m.

Pic­ture two old men shar­ing an ICU unit — fatally ill with a little-known dis­ease, and sur­roun­ded by their large fam­il­ies.  Now ima­gine that the re­l­at­ives (many of them re­search phys­i­cians) don’t spend a minute or a dol­lar to find a cure. In­stead, they squabble over which guy will die first.

Such is the state of U.S. polit­ics. The Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic parties, as rep­res­ent­at­ives of a broken polit­ic­al sys­tem, are los­ing the faith of the Amer­ic­an pub­lic. They’re seen as cor­rupt, in­ef­fect­ive, and con­cerned more about elect­or­al suc­cess than the plight of or­din­ary people or even the coun­try.

In my al­legory, the two ma­jor parties are in the ICU. Gathered around the sick beds are hard-core, hard­headed, and of­ten hate­ful par­tis­ans — the most lib­er­al and most con­ser­vat­ives Amer­ic­ans, whose share of the pop­u­la­tion,  ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Center, is about 12 per­cent and 9 per­cent, re­spect­ively. Are they look­ing for a cure? No, al­most all of the en­ergy on the Left and the Right is spent pars­ing blame. Yes, Amer­ic­ans hate us, but they should hate the oth­er guy more!

They battle to be the least-lousy party.

In a land­mark study, Pew con­cluded that the U.S. pub­lic is in­fec­ted with the same par­tis­an vir­us that has po­lar­ized Wash­ing­ton. Amer­ic­ans “are more po­lar­ized along par­tis­an lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” the study says. The av­er­age gap in views between Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an par­tis­ans has nearly doubled, with most of the in­crease scored dur­ing the Bush-Obama era.

Pre­dict­ably, the par­tis­an me­dia (par­tic­u­larly on the left) ar­gue past the grave­yard. For in­stance, con­gres­sion­al schol­ar Tom Mann wrote an es­say for the Brook­ings In­sti­tute that sought to squeeze the find­ings in­to his the­ory of Asym­met­ric­al Po­lar­iz­a­tion, and blame con­ser­vat­ives for the shift.

The au­thors of the Pew re­port find it more dif­fi­cult to deal with the ques­tion of wheth­er these im­port­ant changes are com­par­able for the two parties. A brief sec­tion on “Is Po­lar­iz­a­tion Asym­met­ric­al” care­fully nav­ig­ates the treach­er­ous wa­ters of­ten as­so­ci­ated with this ques­tion. They note the shift in ideo­lo­gic­al con­sol­id­a­tion among Demo­crats between 1994 and 2014 is more pro­nounced than among Re­pub­lic­ans, leav­ing today’s parties at roughly the same place. But they qual­i­fy that find­ing by also not­ing the sharp­er move­ment right among Re­pub­lic­ans in the last dec­ade and the fact that the in­creas­ing Demo­crat­ic ideo­lo­gic­al con­sol­id­a­tion is as­so­ci­ated with a na­tion­wide left­ward shift in at­ti­tudes on same-sex re­la­tions and im­mig­ra­tion

There are two reas­ons the Mann’s the­ory doesn’t fit neatly in­to the study. First, the data don’t sup­port it. No amount of cherry-pick­ing can dis­guise the fact that voters on both the hard right and the hard  left are grow­ing in num­bers and tough­en­ing their views. Second, it doesn’t really mat­ter.

This is my fun­da­ment­al dis­agree­ment with par­tis­an journ­al­ists and polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists who ded­ic­ate their ca­reers to meas­ur­ing in­cre­ments of fault — the GOP’s share of blame is 20 per­cent or 60 per­cent or 80 per­cent. Who cares? Not the av­er­age voter who merely wants her lead­ers to work to­geth­er and get res­ults. Give me a job. Give me a fair shot at a bet­ter one. Let my kids be more suc­cess­ful than me. And keep my coun­try safe.

That’s not Mann’s fo­cus. “But the asym­met­ric po­lar­iz­a­tion has reached the vot­ing pub­lic as well and is now a crit­ic­ally im­port­ant com­pon­ent of our po­lar­ized polit­ics and dys­func­tion­al gov­ern­ment,” he says. More from Mann:

Un­for­tu­nately, that sub­tlety was lost in a ma­jor rol­lout of the re­port by Pew Re­search Cen­ter Pres­id­ent Alan Mur­ray in The Wall Street Journ­al.  In an oth­er­wise ad­mir­able sum­mary of the re­port’s find­ings, Mur­ray wrote: “The study also un­der­mines the no­tion, pop­u­lar in Wash­ing­ton, of “asym­met­ric­al po­lar­iz­a­tion” — which blames Re­pub­lic­ans for caus­ing the di­vi­sion.” I’m not sure why he thinks this no­tion is pop­u­lar in Wash­ing­ton. When Norm Orn­stein and I in­tro­duced asym­met­ric po­lar­iz­a­tion in our Wash­ing­ton Post Out­look art­icle and book two years ago, the si­lence among mem­bers of the press and Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment was deaf­en­ing. False equi­val­ence — the in­sist­ence on bal­ance between the parties whatever the real­ity — was and largely re­mains a way of life in the main­stream press.

The “false equi­val­ence” charge is a dodge. Neither Mur­ray nor Pew (nor I) found any equi­val­ence in the par­tis­an­ship. It would be soph­istry to claim both parties are equally to blame; few, if any, con­flicts in life are 50-50 calls. Even few­er are ab­so­lute, with one side totally to blame, but ab­so­lu­tion is what Mann es­sen­tially grants the Demo­crat­ic Party when he la­bels the GOP “an in­sur­gent out­lier.” Mur­ray had the au­da­city to state that Re­pub­lic­ans are not alone to blame for the rise in par­tis­an­ship — a fact sup­por­ted by the Pew study and com­mon sense — and for that, he’s ac­cused of false equi­val­ence. I call that slur False Pur­ity.

A fairer read­ing of the poll comes from Chris­toph­er In­gra­ham of The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Wonkblog. While view­ing the data as mostly a re­pu­di­ation of the right wing, In­gra­ham scours the num­bers for the core prob­lem.

Here’s an­oth­er im­port­ant point: Des­pite their out­sized en­thu­si­asm for the primary pro­cess, the most lib­er­al and con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­ans make up re­l­at­ively small shares of the Amer­ic­an pub­lic — 12 per­cent and 9 per­cent, re­spect­ively. A plur­al­ity of Amer­ic­ans — 39 per­cent — falls squarely in the middle of Pew’s ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum. But this group is by far the least likely to vote in primary elec­tions, and in gen­er­al elec­tions too, ac­cord­ing to Pew.

Be­cause of their sheer num­bers, this group of mixed-pref­er­ence voters could — should! — be the core of a cent­rist co­ali­tion. But be­cause of their dis­en­gage­ment, their in­flu­ence on the polit­ic­al pro­cess is di­min­ished re­l­at­ive to the more par­tis­an voices in the mix. This tells me that po­lar­iz­a­tion may be driv­en as much by apathy in the middle of the polit­ic­al spec­trum as it is by en­ergy at the more rauc­ous ideo­lo­gic­al ends.

In­stead of a si­lent ma­jor­ity, we have a si­lent plur­al­ity — and as Wash­ing­ton goes to war with it­self, it’s not pay­ing at­ten­tion.

The best journ­al­ists don’t let their ideo­logy col­or their dia­gnoses. When pos­sible, they hold lead­ers ac­count­able and write pre­scrip­tions for a troubled pub­lic. In­gra­ham says the si­lent middle needs to en­gage. I’d sug­gest they rad­ic­al­ize, be­cause the pa­tient is dy­ing.

RE­LATED: “How Eric Can­tor’s De­feat May Sig­nal a Pop­u­list Re­volu­tion.”

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