TOPICS > Politics

Polarization in Politics Leaves Progress on Party Lines

November 21, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Amid congressional funding battles and veto showdowns with the White House, partisan power struggles appear to be as prevalent as ever in American politics. An expert panel examines the polarization divide and assesses how lawmakers might better bridge the partisan gap.

RAY SUAREZ: Gridlock over spending bills, the war in Iraq, and children’s health care are just a few recent examples of the polarized environment in Washington these days.

With President Bush’s public approval ratings stalled at a career low 33 percent for the fourth straight month and support for the Democratic-led Congress ranking even lower, with just 28 percent of Americans satisfied, are the people and political leaders more divided than ever?

Here to discuss how we got to this point are four authors of recent books on the subject: Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin, author of “Fight Club Politics”; Merle Black, professor of politics in government at Emory University and co-author of “Divided America”; Ronald Brownstein, political director of Atlantic Media and author of “The Second Civil War”; and syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, co-author of “Common Ground.”

Well, let’s start off with a quick thumbnail diagnosis of where we’re at, because there’s a tremendous commonality that runs through all your work that sort of looks at this and says, “Well, it’s not working.”

Ron Brownstein?

RONALD BROWNSTEIN, Political Director, Atlantic Media: Well, you know, there’s a tendency to think about polarization and to think of a symptom as sort of the “Crossfire-ization” of American politics, of partisans of left and right yelling at each other. I think that misses the real cost to the country.

There is a tangible cost, and you hinted at it in your opening there. As you look across the board at the challenges we face — whether it’s health care, energy, entitlements, immigration, spending, developing a sustainable strategy in the war on terror — we are unable to move forward in this society on a 51-49 division.

Ultimately, if we are going to see progress on the problems that people care about, we’re going to need a political leadership that is capable of building broader coalitions than we’ve been able to see in the last few years. So in that sense, I think the actual impact of this comes right into the home and to the kitchen table.

And it’s not just a question of politicians being mean to other; it’s a question of our society not being able to move forward on problems that we care about.

RAY SUAREZ: Cal Thomas?

CAL THOMAS, Co-Author, “Common Ground”: I agree with that, and I think he mentioned two words, “polarization” and “partisanship.” Partisanship is good or we wouldn’t need a two-party system to debate ideas, to debate solutions to problems. This is all good.

But we’ve moved beyond partisanship in modern times to polarization, which says, if I happen to be a Republican and my opponent is a Democrat, nothing good can come out of his or her mouth. They are evil, and they must be destroyed.

Now, this is fueled by the fundraisers, some cable television and talk radio, who treat fellow Americans as the enemies of America. Our real enemies are not the party or persuasion to which we do not belong or subscribe. They’re the Taliban, and we’d better get back to that.

First, we have to identify the problems. Ron went through a list of them. Those are legitimate problems. If we agree on the problem, then we can sit down at table and discuss how to reach the solution, but success is the enemy of polarization. If you have success, then you don’t need the fundraisers, the cable TV, and the rest.

RAY SUAREZ: Juliet Eilperin?

JULIET EILPERIN, Author, “Fight Club Politics”: Well, I think, when you look at the roots of the problem, like you were alluding to, you have to look at how, for a long time, it’s worked for a lot of these politicians, when you look at President Bush and his strategists deliberately appealed to getting out their base in presidential elections, you look at members of Congress who benefit from having politically skewed districts.

For a long time, it’s really helped them get where they are. And I think what’s interesting is now, if they read the poll numbers, they’re seeing that this kind of polarization isn’t working for them anymore politically. And the question is, can they breakthrough it, and break their old habits, and learn how to both reach across the aisle, and also just reach out to a part of the electorate that they haven’t bothered to cater to for years?

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Black?

MERLE BLACK, Professor, Emory University: Well, one of the reasons I think we’re having this polarization that we all acknowledge right now is that the parties are more different in terms of ideology than ever before.

The Republicans are more conservative than they have been historically, and they’re more conservative in lots of different ways, because the Republican Party today is based on the South and the mountain plains, instead of the Northeast and the Midwest.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is far more liberal than it ever has been before, too. There once was a conservative wing of the Democratic Party. And historically American conservatism was split. In the North, the conservatives tended to be Republicans; in the South, they were Democrats.

So It really wasn’t until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, that he really brought white conservatives into the Republican Party in very, very large numbers. And that had those two very different effects on both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

Historical rancor in the House

Ronald Brownstein
Atlantic Media
[T]he way the parties are organized makes it harder for them to bridge the differences that do exist.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you diagnose how we got here in this particular iteration. But haven't we been here before? Cane fights have broken out on the House floor. People challenged each other to duels. The years running up to the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, those tumultuous years before the Civil War, or the early years of the 20th century.

There's been rancor on the House floor. There's been gridlock on the House floor before. Are we some place new, Ron?

RONALD BROWNSTEIN: I would say a couple things. First of all, the period before 1896 really belongs to kind of a different era in American politics. It's hard to compare it to that.

Beginning in 1896, with William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, the parties sort of took a modern shape, in which you had the Republicans and Democrats making arguments that would be familiar today. So in my book, I kind of look at this since then.

And I would agree with you. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was a period very much like our own, in which the governing philosophy of both sides when they were in power was to maximize unity within your coalition so as to minimize your need to make any concessions to the other side, the other coalition. It was a very partisan era.

But as you moved to the middle of the 20th century, we did move into a period of politics that was very different. And Merle touched on something important. When you get to the middle of the 20th century, and you have -- you know, you have Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn working with Dwight Eisenhower and some of the moderate Senate Republicans working with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, there was an electoral underpinning to that system.

Both parties were drawn to the center because they had electoral coalitions that sprawled across it. Both electoral coalitions contained large numbers -- there was still a large number of conservative Americans who voted Democratic. There was still a large number of moderate and liberal Americans who voted Republican, and that was reflected in the kind of elected officials they sent to Washington.

Now, I would place the beginning a little different than Merle. I would say, beginning in the 1960s, we see what I call the great sorting out, in which each party's coalition becomes more homogeneous.

Conservatives now comprise 80 percent of the Republican Party; 80 percent of Republicans call themselves conservatives, much higher than a generation ago. Half of Democrats call themselves liberals, not as high on the Republican side, but higher, again, than a generation ago.

Each side has been unified in a way that widens the distance between them, so even if the absolute level of disagreement in our society is not really larger than it's been in the past -- and I don't think it is -- the way the parties are organized makes it harder for them to bridge the differences that do exist.

Exaggerating party differences

Merle Black
Emory University
[T]o understand America, you break it up into the different regions of the country, look at what's happened over the last 50 years, and you can see very different patterns of development that net out to this...nasty battle at the national level.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Juliet, isn't it that 51-49 split that people have alluded to several times what makes both those parties, gives them an impetus to heighten their difference, exaggerate their difference almost?

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely. One of the things that's so interesting is it's actually the fact that there is so much competition and the stakes are so high, in terms of the control of Congress can split, that either party can win the presidency, that actually has served as an incentive for polarization.

People are convinced that, at this point, their best electoral strategy is defining those differences and winning with the barest of margins, as opposed to taking the risky strategy of trying to reach out across the aisle or, you know, again to appeal in a bolder way, because the feeling is that you're better, you know you have so much of a base to start for, you just need to get a little bit over the edge in order to secure power.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, has compromise been defined as surrender, Cal Thomas?

CAL THOMAS: It has, in many aspects. Look at the Joe Lieberman race. Here was a man who was the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. He was 100 percent with his party on every issue, except the war. and some of the other far-left organizations moved in to Connecticut with great money and volunteers and painted him as a traitor. They used a video of him embracing President Bush after a State of the Union speech and treated it like Judas Iscariot in the Garden of Gethsemane, betraying Jesus. This is the kind of level of vitriol and hatred that is in our politics.

As Bob Beckel, my co-author, and I move around the country, and we speak together to mixed audiences, we find a tremendous revulsion against this attitude of demeaning our fellow Americans and also a tremendous ocean of goodwill for people who will reach out to somebody on the other political side to actually solve the problems.

Most people don't get up in America in the morning and shout to their neighbor of another party, "Hey, you left-wing, commie pinko, what are you going to do to ruin America today?" And the response is, "You right-wing, fascist, Bible-thumper, what are you going to do to ruin America today?" That's not the real America.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, maybe not the real America, Professor Black...

RAY SUAREZ: ... are people going to change their voting behavior? Is that white-knuckle grip going to relax?

MERLE BLACK: Well, we've got this 51-49 nationally, but that's the net result of very different politics in different regions of the country. In the Northeast and the Pacific coast, it's not really close. The Democrats have a very decided advantage right now. And one of the most interesting things going on is this huge Democratic strength in the Northeast, even though the Northeast is declining in relative population size, it's becoming much more Democratic.

And now the Northeast sends a surplus of 44 seats for the Democrats to the U.S. Congress. It's much bigger than the Republican surplus out of the South.

So we're getting this sorting out. We really think, to understand America, you break it up into the different regions of the country, look at what's happened over the last 50 years, and you can see very different patterns of development that net out to this very close, nasty battle at the national level.

Sorting-out in American politics

Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post
I think basically having strong ideas about where to take the country and fighting for them, fighting for them in a fair, level playing field is fine. I think that people respect leaders who outline a vision.

RAY SUAREZ: But it also sounds, Ron, if you're going to break up America that way and look at it in big, regional blocks that people also can go through their day or go through their week much less likely to run into somebody they disagree with.

RONALD BROWNSTEIN: There's no doubt. I mean, if you look at states, there are fewer states that are closely competitive. There are more landslide counties in presidential politics.

There is a sorting-out that is reflected not only in ideological preferences, but in cultural preferences. You know, if you go back and look at this more consensual period in the first decades after World War II, we didn't have a gender gap in American politics. We didn't have a tendency of married voters to vote more Republican than single voters vote more Democratic.

We did not have a gap in people who attend religious services regularly voting more Republican and those less often voting more Democrat. All of these emerged in the '60s and '70s, as our political focus shifted from primarily economic to non-economic issues, like crime, abortion, gay rights, gun rights, foreign policy.

And so each coalition now is not only ideologically but culturally distinct, and all of these things reinforce our division to make it tougher. But I would add that that doesn't mean there is not a constituency in the country for compromise.

And, you know, you used the word risky. It's the right word. There's a certain comfort about this kind of politics, about playing solely to your base, and trying to eke out a 51-49 majority. The flaw is that, even if you win, it is very hard to govern on a sustained basis in this way. And ultimately someone has to take the risk of believing that if you reach out there's a constituency that will reach back.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get the last two comments on what might be partisanship properly understood, a more workable form of partisanship.

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, I think basically having strong ideas about where to take the country and fighting for them, fighting for them in a fair, level playing field is fine. I think that people respect leaders who outline a vision.

I think the fact of the matter is that what we're kind of talking about is, first of all, people try to, again, kind of rig election results by packing people of a political persuasion in certain a congressional district or, again, if they focus all their efforts on get-out-the-vote efforts that will maximize the influence of one small segment of the population, that's something that ends up distorting the voice of different members of our society and ultimately may skew the political outcome.

I think that, you know, if you simply want to talk about what you stand for, people can respect that, but I think that at the same time people -- particularly a politician who's willing to talk about building bridges and solving the problems that Americans have been looking for, for a long time, ultimately might be the best route.

A past reservoir of goodwill

Cal Thomas
Syndicated columnist
If you're even seen in the company of somebody on the other side, somebody will take a picture with their telephone camera, put it on YouTube or the Internet, and you're dead meat the next day.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Cal Thomas you've talked about that reservoir of goodwill. How does that reflect itself in our politics? How do we un-build this thing you say we've built?

CAL THOMAS: Well, you know, we've just been through a drought here in Washington, Ray. And fortunately we've had some rain that has refilled the reservoirs. What we need is something, the equivalent of that in our politics.

What Bob and I talk about in our book, "Common Ground," is the loss of the personal relationships in this town. Members of Congress are here only three days a week. Many of them, most of them don't bring their spouses. The social circuit has dried up.

There used to be, in the old days, the people like Pearl Messina, the great party-givers would invite Republicans and Democrats. Things would get done over dinners, over drinks. The last time I remember that happening, when Tip O'Neill went to the White House for drinks with Ronald Reagan after they had fought all day over some issue, and they worked things out.

That attitude isn't there anymore. If you're even seen in the company of somebody on the other side, somebody will take a picture with their telephone camera, put it on YouTube or the Internet, and you're dead meat the next day. The loss of the personal relationships and the regarding of somebody of a different point of view as a fellow American is what has poisoned our politics.

RAY SUAREZ: Cal Thomas, Ron Brownstein, Merle Black, and Juliet Eilperin, thank you all.