The Case for Partisanship

Why polarization is good for us

In 1950, the American Political Science Association’s Committee on Political Parties issued a clarion call, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” that today sounds quaint. The committee worried about insufficient party discipline and undue tolerance of dissent from the party line, arguing that the country needed political parties with “sufficient internal cohesion” to carry out their legislative agendas. The report urged the minority party to draw starker policy contrasts with the majority, and to act “as the critic of the party in power.”

In short, the political scientists of the time wanted polarization. They got it, of course, and the result, in the general view, has been unseemly and unwelcome. Polarized politics takes the form of a bitter, endless feud; cross-party alliances, once the mainstay of Washington life, are now rare. Yet as today’s presidential candidates call for a less divisive kind of politics, it’s worth recalling the 1950s. While polarization has its drawbacks, the alternative is often worse.

The mid-20th century is sometimes remembered as an era of cozy political consensus, but in fact the corridors of power echoed then with starkly disparate voices. Some officials advocated central planning of the economy in all but name; others wanted no federal safety net whatsoever. And of course, the country’s elected representatives were as deeply divided over civil rights as their constituents were. The politics were no less contentious than they are today. They were just less coherent.

The looser partisanship of the period was mostly the result of racism and its complex role in the politics of the time. The legacy of the Civil War had made the Democrats the party of southern white supremacists, but the legacy of the New Deal had also made them the party of northern liberals and many urban African Americans. These latter constituencies were demanding federal intervention in southern affairs to secure the rights of southern blacks. At the same time, many members of the GOP—the traditional home of black voters and the party of racial progress in many states—were resisting these demands, which struck them as violating the principle of a modest federal government.

The result was a muddle. Nearly every congressional representative from the South was a Democrat and an opponent of civil rights, irrespective of his or her views about anything else. So while most Democrats were to the left of Republicans on economic and foreign-policy issues, many were more conservative than the average Republican on matters of race. Racial liberals and racial conservatives could be found in both parties.

Since the 1970s, however, the significance of civil-rights conflicts in American elections has declined sharply. As older representatives left Congress in the 1980s, political divisions became cleaner. Ideologically moderate politicians have not disappeared, but relatively conservative Democrats like Senators Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu are, on most issues, now to the left of relatively liberal Republicans such as Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The meet-in-the-middle overlap is gone.

From a journalistic point of view, the resulting system is tragically dull. Legislative outcomes become a simple matter of vote-counting: either a party has a majority or it doesn’t. There’s little room for journalistic sleuthing, and what stories there are to tell lack the color and drama of, say, Charlie Wilson’s War, in which an extremely hawkish Democratic congressman was able to persuade his party’s leadership to back a massive covert war in Afghanistan.

For veteran Washington hands—wheelers and dealers in the lobbying game or at the major interest groups—the new system is worse than dull. It’s emasculating. This is why political elites find polarization so distasteful. In a polarized world, elections and procedural rules largely determine policy outcomes; there’s little room for self-styled players to construct coalitions on the fly, and enhance their own power in the process. The growth in the lobbying industry might seem to belie the point, but consider Tom DeLay’s post-1994 “K Street Project”—which pressured lobbying firms who wanted access on the Hill to hire more Republicans—or the swing of the pendulum back after the Democratic takeover in 2006. Power in Congress is firmly in the hands of the party leadership; lobbyists become less powerful, not more, in a polarized system.

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.