Sharp Partisan

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.

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6 Responses to Sharp Partisan

  1. bcbagley says:

    Re (2) —

    Sure, it makes it harder for ideologically *heterodox* voters to express their preferences, but that doesn’t make it generally true that ideologically *pragmatic* ones are generally marginalized. A lot of people whose positions sync with relatively hard-line liberal or conservative views would happily describe themselves as people who “want the government to adopt a pragmatic mix-and-match range of policies that are prudentially matched to particular problems or issues”–they just think the right pragmatic mix is felicitously captured by the party line. (After all, thinking that you have the views you do because they just plain work out best at the end of the day comes cheap.)

    I mean, people on the libertarian right and the communitarian left might feel a little disenfranchised, but that needn’t track commitments to pragmatism! (In fact, don’t there seem to be *more* hard-line ideological lines in the sand among those groups?)

  2. Bruce Wilder says:

    Matthew Yglesias is young, and does not actually remember the politics of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the late 1950’s, the Democrats and the Republicans actually did compete to offer civil rights reforms. “Master of the Senate” recounts how the unlikely figure of Lyndon Johnson managed that competition to produce the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1957, and to capture the liberal zeitgeist for the Democrats.

    Matthew Yglesias’s argument looks an awful lot like a variation on brand management, and I am sure there are genuine insights in a brand management analysis of politics and political communication.

    But, on a deeper level the main trick in politics is to form a working coalition of the sane and the rational against the insane and the foolish. The weird cross-ideological politics of American political parties was not just an accident of the 1960’s. The Parties had competed in the first decades of the 20th century to be Progressive; ideologies of temperance, women’s suffrage, antislavery, banking and currency cut across the Parties of the 19th century.

    The Parties competed to accompany, but not to carry the popular ideologies of the day. The core of the Parties were office seekers, after all. And, the Parties preserved the option to throw the bums out. Or, in large areas of the country, failed to do so, as one Party engineered a monopoly on power. In most (but not all) cases, such monopolies were incomplete, or competing factions within the one Party preserved rotation in office.

    In policymaking, radicals and authoritarians were usually isolated from power. The composition of the Parties in the 1960’s divided the authoritarians between the Parties, and responsible leaders of the both Parties conspired in bi-partisanship to keep them isolated.

    Our present political crisis arises from the fact that the reactionaries in the Republican Party took over leadership of that Party in the 1990’s. That change in political leadership coincided with an ideological re-alignment, which concentrated the authoritarians in that same Republican Party.

    Predictably, the Democratic Party is swelling with a small, but critical number of refugee Republicans — conservatives unhappy with the corruption and incompetence of the Republican reactionary leadership. The increasing weight of these principled conservatives is actually making the Democratic Party more conservative, at the same moment that the Democratic Party is becoming ever more homogeneously center-left. It is an interesting dynamic in American politics — the radicalism of one Party provokes moderation in the other, as the strategic seeking after power leads the other Party to occupy the center. After a long period of the two Parties competing fiercely to get to 51%, American politics may shift toward a more stable 55-45 equilibrium, based on a 60-40 division of political ideology and identification.

  3. hestal says:

    On July 12, 2006, a panel discussion was held at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C. The purpose was to discuss “The Broken Branch,” a new book about Congress written by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. In addition to the two authors, two former Speakers of the House were on the panel: Thomas Foley, Democrat and Newt Gingrich, Republican. These men had a lot to say about Congress, but they were actually talking about the state of our Two-Party System.

    “[Congress] “is broken at this point and needs enormous changes to bring it back to where it should be and needs to be if we are going to make our Constitutional system work.” – Ornstein

    “From the initial Constitutional design through the initial century, Congress struggled to find its way, to first of all, to create political parties, which were never anticipated in the Constitution to find the right balance in division of labor between parties, committees, and individuals.” – Mann

    “The Legislative Branch has to rethink how it’s organized and how it functions. The appropriations process has become absurd, and the idea that you can have thousands of earmarks micromanaging the Federal Government down to the two-hundred thousand dollar items to buy votes is a fundamental assault, and the correct answer is the American people to start firing people.” – Gingrich

    “We are partisans and we have to be – it is the nature of the body.” – Foley

    What they admit is that the Two-Party System, which is what actually operates our national government, is an abject failure. Mann reminds us that the Framers did not include the Two-Party System in the Constitution. Foley admits that Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, all of whom warned us about the dangers of parties, were right. Our government is not a representative body but is a fight between two self-replenishing groups. The people are on the outside, looking in. And they continue to act as if the system they learned about in elementary school is alive and well.

    The Two-Party System is destroying our nation.

    As for the roles of the Democrats and the Republicans in the Civil Rights activities of the 1950’ s and 1960’s, my memory is that Dwight Eisenhower carried the battle in spite of both parties. He took action against much opposition to finish what Truman had started to integrate the military. He appointed blacks to work in the national government to an unprecedented extent. He appointed Earl Warren and others to the Supreme Court which helped to secure rulings that favored integration. Again he was opposed vigorously and bitterly by the racist South. Johnson, who wanted to be president, weakened the 1957 bill by designing a strategy that would enable Southerners to defy court orders with impunity. Eisenhower gave in so that he could at least get the voting rights portion. Johnson thus could claim to the North that he was for Civil Rights for blacks and to the South that he was against them.

    Eisenhower caused the integration of Washington, D.C. and he appointed black men to offices in the D.C. government where he could.

    Eisenhower also sent the troops to Little Rock, and both parties opposed that move.

    So my recollection of those events, and I lived during those times – one Texas school not far from where I lived was involved in defying court orders to integrate – is that Dwight Eisenhower, who had unique stature in the 20th century, had the integrity, the almost naïve sense of fair play, and the determination to change the course of our nation’s history. If it had not been for him, Jim Crow, not the Constitution, might still be law of the land in the South.

    Parties are not worth the powder it would take to blow them up.

  4. Doug says:

    Hestal, parties are inevitable. Some of the USA’s founding generation fulminated against them, often calling them “factions,” but no sooner were there offices and office-holders than there was an opposition. More recently, a dozen and a half countries in Eastern and Central Europe threw off the shackles of communism. The societies were good and sick of party this and party that; some of the leading lights of the various revolutions aimed for an explicit anti-politics. And yet “We are all Poles” or “We are all Hungarians” only goes so far. It’s news to no one that people have different interests and different values. From the moment of unity that brought down communist regimes, different countries moved in different tempos, but each and every one of them has a party system today. Longing for a world without parties is longing for a world without politics.

    As for Newt Gingrich complaining about earmarks, puh-leeze, give me a mf break. That man has been pissing in the well of public discourse for a quarter of a century and now he says the water tastes funny. Earmarks of all things. Did this supposedly pernicious practice increase tenfold after the Republicans took Congress in 1994? Or was it merely fivefold?

    Tim’s right about the need for norms that divide the partisanship necessary to deliver responsive government, and what crosses the line into the use of what ought to be neutral state powers for partisan ends. One of the things that’s happened in at least the last 20 years is that the Republican party has kept pushing at traditions and discovering there weren’t any sanctions for throwing them out. In fact, there were often rewards.

    (Parenthetically, that’s why I don’t think we’re going to get anything like truth and reconciliation after this next election; there are precious few Republicans who think that their leadership has done anything wrong in this regard. Electoral therapy, whether on the Sebelius model (defection) or the Morella model (defeat in a Democratic-trending area) is probably the only thing that will work. For there to be a moderate Republican wing, it has to be something more than an enabler for the radicals.)

    For example, it is my understanding that for many years, the task of keeping the Senate running was thought to be worthwhile enough that parties did not actively campaign to push a Majority Leader from the other party out of the Senate. But the Republicans went after Tom Daschle tooth and nail, and found that it was just a tradition. The aggressive use of filibuster threats in the current Congress is another example. The interpretation of what it means that US Attorneys serve “at the pleasure of the President” is another example.

    What we’ve had is one party pushing very hard to find out where the line between party and state falls, and working pretty darn aggressively move it in their favor. Consensus in the matters Tim raises isn’t going to come around until there’s some kind of working consensus on what can be done to unlevel the playing field in one’s party’s favor.

  5. hestal says:


    “Hestal, parties are inevitable.” There are a multitude who agree with you, but as LBJ said, “If more than one person agree on everything you can bet that only one person is doing the thinking.” All of my working life I encountered the idea that you expressed. The status quo is always inevitable. But obviously that just couldn’t be true, or I would not have retired a rich man at age 55. I spent my working years changing the status quo on a very large scale.

    “Factions” are often raised as some sort of mark that the Framers lived in a different time and that parties are somehow different from “factions.” But Madison, in Federalist 10, gave us the 18th century definition:

    “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

    My late 20th century dictionary defines “faction” as:

    “A party, combination, or clique (as within a state, government, or other association) often contentious, self-seeking, or reckless of the common good.”

    Seems pretty clear to me. Factions are the real world embodiment of the ideal form of a party. Factions then and factions today are the same.

    The former communist countries that wound up with many parties rather than just one are simply proving what the Framers predicted: “if you must have parties, and we think you shouldn’t, but if you must have them in spite of our warnings, then the more the merrier.”

    Two parties is just one more than one party – and their work is far from merry or good for America.

    And you are confusing politics with ideas. We should be living in a world where ideas are debated until the People decide which ideas to put in to action. We need to transform public wishes into public policies. And perhaps at one time, though I don’t know when that would be, politics and ideas were the same and politics was a workable process for converting public wishes into public policies. But politics no longer means that and the causes are precisely the ones that the Framers warned us about — in very plain language.

    The present Two-Party is just one mechanism for transforming public wishes into public policies, and not a very good one. It is just one out of many possible. We can and must do better. Unless you are saying that everything is okay.

    It is amazing to me how our generation can acclaim the Framers for what they put into the Constitution but pay to no attention to what they deliberately omitted on the grounds that it would “ruin” “public liberty.”

    Larry J. Sabato, in his book, “A More Perfect Constitution,” proposes 23 changes to the present Constitution to improve it. Five of them are in the section “Politics: America’s Missing Constitutional Link.” They are good ones and they would correct some, but far from all, of the objections I have about parties. And he introduces no new technologies, even though we are now able to do things that the Framers rejected because they were not feasible at that time. These technologies are new only in the sense that the Constitution does not use them; they are used very successfully for other purposes worldwide.

    Mr. Sabato, without crediting the Framers, at least is beginning to wake up to what the Framers were warning us about. He says:

    “Along the way, though, the constitutionally ungoverned parties have also changed to serve their own needs better—and some of these selfish purposes have begun to override those of the citizenry’s.”

    I think he is getting warm. The “selfish purposes” of parties are destroying our nation.

    But just for the fun of it, why don’t you tell me how the next 12 years will go in our nation. Pick 6 or 8 of the most important issues and tell me what will be done about them and when it will be done. You pick them and I will make my guesses also.

    Historians talk about history all the time and they avoid applying it to the future. I had to build the future and I had to predict the effects of what I was building, how much it would cost, and how long it would take. So play on my side of the court for a while. Tell us what us is going to happen under our “inevitable” Two-Party System. And also tell us if what you predict is good enough for America.

    Your closing paragraph is very depressing. That attitude never accomplished anything, but you are entitled to it. A more helpful approach would be to spell out what changes can and should be made, what their benefits would be, how much it will cost to produce them, how long it will take, and then rally the consensus. That is how you get things done. Your words are simply a way of saying, “Go away kid, you bother me.”

  6. Sam Tobin-Hochstadt says:

    I think your response is interesting, but ultimately naive. On the first point, I think that Matt is advocating something like the British system, where there is ultimately no such firewall (or so I believe), but they get by anyway. And I think we’ve seen over the past 7 years that firewalls that the government does not believe in will fail to hold. So ultimately, the only firewall that will have success is the belief in the system on the part of the actors – in other words, an honest set of parties.

    On the second point, you described a while ago the fact that pragmatism and competence are not universally considered positive, and in fact that’s one of the major problems facing our politics today. The party of ‘good government’ is the Democratic Party today.

    Also, I think the hope for a politics of compromise, consensus and pragmatism is ultimately a vain one, because it presumes an agreement that doesn’t exist about more fundamental questions. The ‘liberal consensus’ of the Fifties and Sixties fell apart because it was merely an elite consensus, and I think it should ultimately go unmourned. As the EU is learning, democratic legitemacy requires grappling with the conflicting desires of the actual voters. The alternative reading of your politics of compromise is simply a split-the-difference, Sandra Day O’Connor-style that I hope you don’t subscribe to.

    On your third point, I think the remixing of the parties will require a fundamental cleavage as significant as race, which does not seem to be in the offing.

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