Grover Norquist Has No Interest in Bipartisan Cooperation

The conservative activist defended our polarized politics in a conversation with presidential historian David Gergen and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel.

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Elena Olivo

The only thing Americans seems to agree on these days is that we can't agree on much. With a divided Congress, a 5-4 Supreme Court, and a president who has as much difficulty with his own party as the opposing one, it seems like a legitimate miracle when our government accomplishes anything. Presidential historian and former presidential adviser David Gergen says things have gotten so bad that "we're in danger of national decline" because we can't resolve any of our issues.

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Maybe the question isn't "Why can't we all get along?" but "Did we ever?" Grover Norquist is reviled on the left for his anti-tax pledge that has bedeviled congressional revenue efforts for years, and he is often singled out as a leading cause of our current gridlocked condition. Yet Norquist says that people who recall a golden era of bipartisanship are merely revealing how old they are. The fights of yesteryear may not have been "partisan" -- since parties tended to form around regional alliances rather than ideology -- but they were still fights. Liberal Democrats teamed up with liberal Republicans to take on the conservative wings of their own party. It's only in the last 30 years that they have aligned under the same political banner.

Gergen and Norquist were both joined by Katrina vanden Heuvel (editor of the one of the most partisan magazines in the country, The Nation), at the New York Ideas conference, sponsored by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and the New-York Historical Society. The title of their panel asked "Will a Divided House Come Back Together?" But judging by the debate the audience witnessed, the answer is not encouraging. 

Norquist, for one, is proud that liberals and conservatives have finally parted ways, because now when you pull the lever for that R or D, at least you know where you stand. It's also, in a perverse way, the solution to divided government. States have drawn their own battle lines so clearly between red and blue (more than half have both legislatures and governorships controlled by one party) that the people can decide for themselves which system works better ... and which brand they want to live under. 

Vanden Heuvel, meanwhile, appeared positively exasperated by Norquist's repeated claims that the fundamental goal of everything should be liberty (which he defines as the government leaving people alone). Issues of inequality or the idea that, as she puts it, "government is rigged against the average person," brushed past him without a glancing blow. Norquist seemed to know what he was aiming for and the target was in his sights. Even as vanden Heuvel stood by the idea of a common purpose, however, she didn't seem eager to call for total unity either, asking how anyone can demand "shared sacrifice" when so few people have benefited from recent prosperity. It's not that either one seemed to be spoiling for a fight or uninterested in making the world better. It's just that they expressed very different ideas about how to accomplish this. 

That brings us all the way back to our original problem: how to get the two parties to agree on anything. The trouble with our ideologically strident system is that the center no longer exists, and that puts the ability to compromise in danger. David Gergen remarked that James Madison would be appalled at the state our discourse, because while the Constitution was designed for a clash of ideas, the clash was supposed to "lead us to a higher place, not a lower one." The panel certainly didn't lower the discourse, but it also didn't agree on one either.

To Norquist, however, the solution is simple: a Romney victory combined with a Republican Senate takeover (complete with supermajority) by 2014. Then, as far as he's concerned, the problem of gridlock will solve itself.

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Dashiell Bennett is the news editor for TheAtlantic.com.

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