Comment April 2008

The Case for Partisanship

Why polarization is good for us

But for voters, the boring new ways can be looked at in another way—they’re straightforward. Elections have a predictable and easy-to-understand relationship to government action. Electing a Democrat means, on the margin, more spending on the federal safety net and more government regulation, while electing a Republican produces policies more favorable to business interests. You don’t necessarily get everything you want (ask any liberal disappointed by the continued flow of funds for the Iraq War), but at least on domestic measures, things move predictably.

Under the looser system, it was hard to know where the parties really stood, or what effect elections might have. In 1956, for example, the voters of Idaho turned out their incumbent conservative Republican senator, Herman Welker, in favor of the Democrat Frank Church, whose liberal views included strong support for civil rights. Church’s election helped preserve the Democratic Party’s slender majority in the Senate, despite pickups by several Republicans. But as a result, the Judiciary Committee—with its jurisdiction over civil-rights issues—came under the gavel of Mississippi’s James Eastland, a die-hard segregationist.

In the same election, both Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson had obtained substantial support from African Americans and segregationists. Both parties were nominally supportive of civil rights, and yet little of consequence was accomplished in the ensuing years. What’s more, it was unclear to voters what course of action might break this inertia. Party affiliation was important because the majority party won the chairmanships of powerful committees that controlled many levers of government. Inconveniently, however, party affiliation didn’t align tightly with ideology, leaving much of the real business of the country to be decided behind closed doors in Washington.

Of course, today’s choice between two prix fixe ideological menus doesn’t make everyone happy. Indeed, almost nobody agrees with either party’s basic orientation on all questions facing the country. This breeds disgruntlement with the reductive nature of America’s party system. But the real complaint here is not with the coherence of the parties, but with the quantity of them. Most democracies have at least three parties represented in their legislatures. That gives people more choices, while still giving them coherent choices.

That said, what usually causes the rise of new parties, or the loosening and confusion of existing ones, is the emergence of new social conflicts that are so overwhelmingly important that they strain the existing coalitions, scrambling party positions on everything else. Despite the ferocious rhetoric, the new issues of recent years—primarily related to sex and religion—haven’t been controversial enough to disturb the existing alignment. Perhaps religion will one day do that, causing the depolarization of the parties along economic and foreign-policy lines, or the rise of a viable third party in some states. But of course, this cure for polarized parties would be worse than the disease. Strong clashes between coherent parties aren’t a sign that the country is flying apart—they mean we’re getting along better than we think.

Presented by

Matthew Yglesias, an Atlantic associate editor, blogs at matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com.

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