What’s Wrong with Our Politics: “Asymmetric” Polarization

Not many would argue with the claim that our politics has become dysfunctional. The parties can’t seem to agree on anything, and the legislative process has been tied in knots for most of President Obama’s tenure as president. But typically, most scholars and journalists, in a desire to appear balanced and objective, have been reluctant to assign blame to any one side. Instead they have preferred to rise above the fray and speak in generalizations about the bad political “climate” and the failure of the “system.” This is why a new study by two respected political scientists who have long been known as honest brokers (one works for the moderate to liberal Brookings Institution, the other for the conservative American Enterprise Institute) has raised eyebrows. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein assert in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks that one side, the Republican Party in its present form, bears most of the blame for the current impasse. The polarization, in their words, is “asymmetric,” or attributable to one side more than the other.

Mann and Ornstein, who seem almost embarrassed for taking a stance that might be construed as partisan, obviously felt moved by the pressing nature of the facts.  Their conclusions will not come as a shock to sophisticated political observers. Republicans have in essence become rejectionists, making no secret of their goal to see the current Democratic administration fail at whatever cost. In the face of the worst economic crisis since the New Deal, they have refused cooperation on virtually all major legislation. Throwing sand in the gears of government, they have used holds and filibusters to an unprecedented extent, all for the purpose of hampering the legislative process, slowing down appointments,  and even blocking the implementation of already passed laws.

In the summer of 2011, the party’s obstructive behavior rose to the level of what the authors call a “new politics of hostage taking.” For the first time in history, congressional Republicans attached preconditions to raising the nation’s debt limit, a messy Washington ritual even in normal times. Their non-negotiable demand for broad spending cuts with no corresponding tax increases–and to hell with the opposing party–was a brazen show of unilateralism that brought government to the brink of crisis and resulted in a U.S. credit downgrade. 

As Mann and Ornstein point out, such behavior did not arise overnight. The GOP’s position as an ” insurgent outlier,” as they put it, can be traced back to the polarizing strategy adopted by Newt Gingrich and like-minded Republicans in their bid to take control of Congress starting in the late 1970’s.  Through a long process of attempting to discredit Democratic leadership, Gingrich and his allies helped to tarnish the reputation of Congress. Smearing Congress actually advanced their long-term goals by putting them on the side of anti-Washington sentiment. Eventually the strategy came back to bite Gingrich, as he sank in the 90’s under the same kind of accusations he had launched against his enemies. But his “guerrilla” tactics of treating Congress as a field for combat rather than an organ for practical governance became, over time, a part of the GOP playbook.

Along with this institutional polarization came more ideological uniformity on the Republican side of the aisle in comparison with the Democratic side. Part of this had to do with what seemed like a clarification of the GOP’s conservative mission during and after the Reagan presidency, as seen in its increased critique of social  programs and the regulatory state. By this time, it had become much more of a southern party, as Republican politicians increasingly became the choice of conservative southern whites in the post-civil rights era. In contrast, the Democrats retained a broader range of opinion and a “more diverse constituency base” even after the disappearance of their former block of southern conservative Democrats. 

The tendency toward purity among Republicans is perhaps best illustrated by the rising influence of Grover Norquist, a key driver of ideological politics. Norquist, who was part of the tax revolt in the late 1970’s, turned the anti-tax movement into a vast lobbying operation and an irrestible political force. His “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which commits signers to oppose all tax increases, has become a virtual requirement for today’s House Republicans.

The authors could well have discussed another force that has contributed greatly to Republican ideological extremism: the Christian Right.  The culture war it promotes under the banner of anti-secularism has, over time, helped to demonize liberals and Democrats. The conservative Christian hold over the Republican Party is strikingly obvious today from the social-issue orientation of the 2012 Republican presidential primary and the almost unanimous support for socially conservative legislation it can count on from Republican legislators.  

In general, Mann and Ornstein have given us plenty to chew over. Perhaps just as significant as their assignment of political blame is where they envision a change of direction. Specifically, they look for a solution not so much with the politicians as with the media and the voters. The media, they believe, needs to start understanding that a mechanical sort of balance is inadequate to explaining the current gridlock. Filibusters and holds do not occur anonymously, and the resulting impasse cannot simply be blamed on Congress as a whole. One side is doing these things and for political reasons. The media has a duty to raise the public’s awareness of the politicians who engage in such activities and to “clarify the choices voters face” at the voting booth.

Voters, for their part, need to be more engaged and less cynical. Simply voting the “bums” in Washington out when the system fails is simplistic and often counter-productive, since by placing in office new, more righteous politicans it often only reinforces the polarized status quo. Voters need to remove, not reward, those who are allergic to realistic compromise. It goes without saying that the end of gridlock can only occur through the choices of an educated citizenry.

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