Matthew Yglesias has an interesting piece in the April Atlantic that argues that intense partisan differences between the two major American political parties are a good thing, on balance, that they allow voters to make clear choices and decrease the power of lobbyists and deal-brokers.
It’s an interesting argument. For example, he observes, in the 1960s, you had an impossible problem as a voter if you wanted to vote for a party that would support civil rights legislation, since both parties had segregationist factions, and any forward motion could only come through cross-party coalitions that voters had little ability to reward directly.
I see three problems with the argument as he makes it, however.
1) In a situation where the two parties are strongly and uniformly partisan, you’re going to need a firewall between the elected government and the appointed government, between people I can vote for or against and people who carry out the everyday business of government. The consequences of partisanship are one thing on the floor of Congress and another thing when we’re talking about United States Attorneys in regional positions all across the country.
2) Yglesias notes that the era of consensus politics made it difficult for many voters to clearly express their preferences because the parties were so heterogenous in their ideological composition. However, an era of partisan politics makes it difficult for voters who have an ideological preference for pragmatism and compromise to express their preferences. If I want the government to consistently work to outlaw abortion or to more aggressively manage the economy, partisan politics makes it easier for me to match my vote with outcomes. If I want the government to adopt a pragmatic mix-and-match range of policies that are prudentially matched to particular problems or issues, however, partisan politics makes it harder for me to match my preferences to a party while also making the kind of candidate that I might prefer a more endangered species.
3) To some extent, I think Yglesias may be misidentifying fundamental social cleavages as if they were artifacts of party competition in the political system. The distribution of segregationist views across both parties in the 1960s, for example, might have had little to do with party politics and a lot to do with the fact that there were distinctly different populations of white voters in different regions who happened to agree on their support for segregationist policies despite the fact that their support stemmed from different historical roots. If parties are more internally aligned today, that might simply be because the social coalitions that support those parties are, for the moment, clearer about the reasons for their alliance. I think it’s entirely possible that both major parties will be dealing with rising discomfort at their social foundations, particularly if the economy continues to struggle with long-term structural weakness: the Republicans may see religious conservatives and business-class voters split, while the Democrats may see even more exaggerated splits between affluent educated urban voters and the traditional union and working-class base of the party. The more that such social antagonisms express themselves in the parties, the less likely you are to see clear partisan distinctions between them.