Weaker Parties, Deeper Partisan Divides: An Oral History

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January 13, 2020
by
Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter & Producer, FRONTLINE

In October 2017, Jeff Flake, one of the two Republican senators from Arizona, stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate and announced that he would not seek re-election. Just months earlier, President Donald Trump had criticized both Flake and then-Sen. John McCain at a political rally in the senators’ home state. The president didn’t mention either by name, but he didn’t need to. He talked about how Republicans had been “just one vote away from victory” in repealing the Affordable Care Act — a vote by Arizona’s senior senator, John McCain. Then, Trump added, “nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who’s weak on borders, weak on crime, so I won’t talk about him.”

Knowing that he would face a tough primary, Flake, a traditional conservative and frequent Trump critic, took the opportunity that October day to comment on the behavior of his party’s leader and the future of the Republican party. “Anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy,” Flake said. He warned that the “impulse to scapegoat and belittle” could turn the Republican party into “a fearful, backward-looking minority party.” As this oral history recounts, his speech did not elicit widespread support from his Republican colleagues, but instead further cemented Trump’s takeover of the GOP.

In his speech, Flake also said that a traditional conservative like himself “who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party,” acknowledging that the party’s ideological underpinnings had changed.

Yet, even as the ideological centers of the Republican and Democratic parties have weakened and shifted, observers say that partisan divisions have sharpened, with people viewing their political opponents as the enemy. This oral history, drawn from interviews conducted for America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump and Trump’s Takeover, includes accounts from former members of Congress, political consultants and commentators and veteran journalists.

Note: The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length and have been drawn from FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project.

Trump takes on a Republican senator — and wins

Jeff Flake former U.S. senator from Arizona
I had been in the Congress for 12 years in the House. I initially didn’t think I’d go that long. Then in the Senate for a term. I would have liked to have done one more term in the Senate under different circumstances, but I couldn’t bring myself to support the president’s policies, many of them, and I certainly couldn’t bring myself to condone the president’s behavior. That just—that wasn’t in the cards. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it during the campaign; I couldn’t do it during the first year of his presidency.
That being the case, I had two choices; one, to try to change my behavior and to be more aligned with the president, and that wouldn’t be genuine on my part; or I felt as well, this is an important year ahead, and somebody needs to stand up and say: “This is not our party. This is not behavior that we should condone. We shouldn’t be OK with this. This is not normal,” because for the long term, I’m very concerned about the direction of the party, and I felt it was more important to do that. …

Anger and resentment is not a governing philosophy. And I thought that people needed to hear that. And it was certainly cathartic for me to say it on the Senate floor. So I just, you know, at that time, I felt that was a more important way to go.

Susan Davis congressional correspondent, NPR
It’s a lonely place to be… And [Flake’s] colleagues, who very much like him and respect him, nobody wants to be a secondary injury in this fight, right? So he’s also kind of lonely in that there isn’t a groundswell in the Senate, the club where normally senators stand up for each other, defend each other. There isn’t a rush to stick up for Jeff Flake or side with him. Everyone just kind of stays on the sidelines and wants to stay out of it. When you would talk to a senator, “What did you think about Jeff Flake?,” “Oh, I didn’t see what he said. I missed it. I was in a meeting.” Like, there wasn’t much ruminating on his decision, and they all just kind of moved on, right? Flake has continued to speak out when he disagrees with the president, but he’s a lonely voice.

Eric Cantor former House Majority Leader
[In Flake] I saw someone who felt that he, by speaking his mind, was put into a politically unpalatable situation. And I think the name calling that came from the White House toward him was something that, again, that’s just something that people in politics and in Washington may be used to with party opposition, but never a president of your own party. And the president of the United States engaging in name calling, that is really something unique and different.

Corey Lewandowski former Trump campaign manager
…Jeff could have had a very long career in the U.S. Senate, and now his political career is essentially over because he made the wrong calculation. He thought attacking the president was going to endear him in his home state [of Arizona] because he thought that there was a backlash out there against the president that was silent. …

He made a terrible calculation. He went against Donald Trump, who’s a proven winner, and now Jeff is a guy who also used to be a U.S. senator.

Steve Schmidt political strategist for the John McCain presidential campaign
In the Trump era and in our dysfunctional or nonfunctional politics of this era, there’s no room for disagreement. It’s zero sum all the time. Trump expects obedience, and the highest virtue that can be bestowed to any person to seek Trump’s favor is by being utterly obedient. …But the era where the senators, the members of Congress, asserted their prerogatives, their power, would stand up to a president, seems largely to be over in the United States today.

Charlie Sykes founder and editor-at-large, The Bulwark
This was a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, and Trump won. There’s no question about it. And it’s not so much that Trump took over the Republican Party; it’s that the Republican Party completely capitulated to him. You wonder whether or not if some people would have pushed back, if [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan, rather than becoming an enabler, had become an articulate critic of some of this, would it have made a difference? It probably would have cost him his speakership, but maybe there would have been an alternative voice in the party.

So you have a party right now that is divided between people who are just simply afraid of him, people who are strictly transactional, who just figure, “I’m going to go along; I will praise him because I want something from him,” and then a relatively smaller group of people who I think are just pure Trumpkins. They are the true believers.

But I think what they’re all united in believing is that in order to survive politically, not lose in a primary, that they have to stick as close to him as possible…

Weaker parties and stronger divisions

Matt Bai author, The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics
[I]n some ways, the story of our time is the dissolution of strong political parties: losing people, losing control, losing credibility. And it’s been just much more pronounced on the Republican side. And as I said, they’ve—it’s the last 10 years has been a period of time where Republican “leaders,” quote/unquote, have basically been carried along by a populist tide in their own party that they don’t really understand and don’t really control; that they created, I think, through a lot of rhetoric and divisiveness over a 30-, 40-year period, probably going back to Reagan and Nixon. They created the monster, and they’ve been unable to get it under lock and key, and unwilling to risk losing their own jobs or their own standing in order to take a stand on principle.

Molly Ball national political correspondent, Time
[O]ne of the sort of larger macro trends in American society in the last several decades, we talk about increasing partisanship, increasing polarization, but actually people are leaving the major parties at a historic rate, and the parties themselves are not popular with pretty much anyone. What we see really increasing is negative partisanship. People are more and more sure who their enemies are.

And so, you know, Trump was really able to unify the Republican Party against Obama and against Hillary Clinton. They might have disagreed on everything else, they might have been divided between the establishment and the Tea Party and the conservatives and the moderates and so on, but everyone could agree on who their enemies were. And I think that’s what’s going to unify the Democrats now, is they may disagree on whether to, you know, go for Medicare For All or just tweaking the Affordable Care Act. That’s not really an ideological difference so much as a difference of degree. But they can—but they all agree that they want to get rid of Trump.

Steve Schmidt political strategist for the John McCain presidential campaign
The statesmen and -women, and we don’t have a lot of them, but as a general proposition, the one place you won’t see them is on a cable news channel. You see the inciters. … Politics became entertainment where anything could be true, any lie could be reality. And the serious business, the life-and-death issues that political leaders face in a dangerous world, were unceremoniously removed from discussion because they’re boring and they don’t drive ratings.

…It’s a threat to American democracy. What Lincoln understood is that what would threaten this country would come from within, not from an external threat. A democratic republic—and we’re the oldest in the world—depends on an informed citizen; it depends on truth. Without truth, there can’t be accountability, and without accountability, you don’t have a functioning, healthy democracy. And all over the world, not just in the United States, you see a regression of democracies fueled by a social-media world where truth has been obliterated.

Judy Woodruff anchor and managing editor, PBS NewsHour
I think we are as divided as we have ever been in this country. I’ve watched Washington over a few decades, and I’ve never seen it like it is. And it’s not just a division here in Washington between the politicians, where we see it raw and visceral day after day, where people not only disagree with each other; they insult and undermine and demean the other side. It’s been blown even further out of proportion by the news media.

We gravitate to division, to argument, all of us in the media. I’d like to say the PBS NewsHour doesn’t engage in that. But the media, writ large, has bought into this. And we’ve dramatized the differences, and we’ve dramatized the divisions, and we make a lot out of argument. And that’s what makes great TV. That’s what makes—sells tweets. That’s what gets eyeballs focused on whatever argumentative Facebook posting or Twitter post is out there.

And hand in hand with that, the American people are divided like they’ve never been. I remember—I’ve been in Washington long enough where I would travel around, talk to voters, and people would be willing to hear the other side. It’s not that they were all ready to hold hands, “Kumbaya,” we’re all going to come together, but they would at least listen to the other side and understand there was a difference. Today there’s just a lack of respect and a willingness to ascribe the worst motives, to assume the other side is not just the opponent, political opponent, but the enemy, the guy who needs to be not just vanquished but eliminated, not just defeated in the election but crushed under our heels.

It’s—it’s a much more visceral, bloody, gladiator-like contest than anything I’ve seen in my time covering American politics.

Charlie Sykes founder and editor-at-large, The Bulwark
I think it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said that evil doesn’t run between classes or nations; it runs down the middle of every human heart, so that Americans can go either way. Abraham Lincoln appealed to the “better angels of our nature”; Donald Trump appeals to the darker impulses of our nature. And so which direction are we going as a country? Are we more willing to indulge our prejudices? Are we more willing to stand with fellow Americans and chant, “Send her back, send her back,” or “Lock her up”? Is this who we are, or could we have been something different?

I know some of these people, and these are people who lead good, wholesome, responsible lives. They belong to their churches; they’re good citizens. And yet somehow in this age, they get drawn into this kind of a movement. …

The day that Donald Trump leaves the presidency, America is not healed. The damage of this is going to be long term, and I think it’s going to be very, very deep. And that’s what I worry about, taking the focus off him and turning it back onto us and what have we been willing to accept that we weren’t willing to accept before? How do we think about each other? How do we think about being an American? How do we treat one another? What are our standards? And I think the damage is potentially going to be very deep.

Frank Luntz Republican pollster
I know what the future is, and if we do not change this course right now, our children will grow up in an environment where there is no compromise, where there is no cooperation. Our children are being taught to be judgmental at a time when we should be more open than we’ve ever been. They’re taught that their opponents are stupid or destructive or even worse. Our kids are taught to bully. Our kids are taught to ignore. It’s not just how adults treat each other; our children are watching. Our kids are watching. …

Politics isn’t a game. And it’s not just for who’s alive today; it’s for what we will be 50 or 100 years from now. And I don’t think we think of the consequences. I don’t think we consider them when we think about what we say and how we say it, that we are so drawn into separate camps, that our camp can say anything and their camp is always evil. And that’s wrong.

We need referees of decency and a willingness to call out our own side, because in the end it isn’t our side; it’s everyone’s side. We were far more divided in the Civil War, far more divided during the Great Depression. But we’ve always had hope in the future, and that hope, we’re losing it with this division.

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