How Malpractice May Kill Our Politics

While partisans squabble, the Republican and Democratic parties are making their deathbeds.

National Journal

Picture two old men sharing an ICU unit — fatally ill with a little-known disease, and surrounded by their large families.  Now imagine that the relatives (many of them research physicians) don't spend a minute or a dollar to find a cure. Instead, they squabble over which guy will die first.

Such is the state of U.S. politics. The Republican and Democratic parties, as representatives of a broken political system, are losing the faith of the American public. They're seen as corrupt, ineffective, and concerned more about electoral success than the plight of ordinary people or even the country.

In my allegory, the two major parties are in the ICU. Gathered around the sick beds are hard-core, hardheaded, and often hateful partisans — the most liberal and most conservatives Americans, whose share of the population,  according to the Pew Research Center, is about 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Are they looking for a cure? No, almost all of the energy on the Left and the Right is spent parsing blame. Yes, Americans hate us, but they should hate the other guy more!

They battle to be the least-lousy party.

In a landmark study, Pew concluded that the U.S. public is infected with the same partisan virus that has polarized Washington. Americans "are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years," the study says. The average gap in views between Democratic and Republican partisans has nearly doubled, with most of the increase scored during the Bush-Obama era.

Predictably, the partisan media (particularly on the left) argue past the graveyard. For instance, congressional scholar Tom Mann wrote an essay for the Brookings Institute that sought to squeeze the findings into his theory of Asymmetrical Polarization, and blame conservatives for the shift.

The authors of the Pew report find it more difficult to deal with the question of whether these important changes are comparable for the two parties. A brief section on "Is Polarization Asymmetrical" carefully navigates the treacherous waters often associated with this question. They note the shift in ideological consolidation among Democrats between 1994 and 2014 is more pronounced than among Republicans, leaving today's parties at roughly the same place. But they qualify that finding by also noting the sharper movement right among Republicans in the last decade and the fact that the increasing Democratic ideological consolidation is associated with a nationwide leftward shift in attitudes on same-sex relations and immigration

There are two reasons the Mann's theory doesn't fit neatly into the study. First, the data don't support it. No amount of cherry-picking can disguise the fact that voters on both the hard right and the hard  left are growing in numbers and toughening their views. Second, it doesn't really matter.

This is my fundamental disagreement with partisan journalists and political scientists who dedicate their careers to measuring increments of fault — the GOP's share of blame is 20 percent or 60 percent or 80 percent. Who cares? Not the average voter who merely wants her leaders to work together and get results. Give me a job. Give me a fair shot at a better one. Let my kids be more successful than me. And keep my country safe.

That's not Mann's focus. "But the asymmetric polarization has reached the voting public as well and is now a critically important component of our polarized politics and dysfunctional government," he says. More from Mann:

Unfortunately, that subtlety was lost in a major rollout of the report by Pew Research Center President Alan Murray in The Wall Street Journal.  In an otherwise admirable summary of the report's findings, Murray wrote: "The study also undermines the notion, popular in Washington, of "asymmetrical polarization" — which blames Republicans for causing the division." I'm not sure why he thinks this notion is popular in Washington. When Norm Ornstein and I introduced asymmetric polarization in our Washington Post Outlook article and book two years ago, the silence among members of the press and Washington establishment was deafening. False equivalence — the insistence on balance between the parties whatever the reality — was and largely remains a way of life in the mainstream press.

The "false equivalence" charge is a dodge. Neither Murray nor Pew (nor I) found any equivalence in the partisanship. It would be sophistry to claim both parties are equally to blame; few, if any, conflicts in life are 50-50 calls. Even fewer are absolute, with one side totally to blame, but absolution is what Mann essentially grants the Democratic Party when he labels the GOP "an insurgent outlier." Murray had the audacity to state that Republicans are not alone to blame for the rise in partisanship — a fact supported by the Pew study and common sense — and for that, he's accused of false equivalence. I call that slur False Purity.

A fairer reading of the poll comes from Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post's Wonkblog. While viewing the data as mostly a repudiation of the right wing, Ingraham scours the numbers for the core problem.

Here's another important point: Despite their outsized enthusiasm for the primary process, the most liberal and conservative Americans make up relatively small shares of the American public — 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively. A plurality of Americans — 39 percent — falls squarely in the middle of Pew's ideological spectrum. But this group is by far the least likely to vote in primary elections, and in general elections too, according to Pew.

Because of their sheer numbers, this group of mixed-preference voters could — should! — be the core of a centrist coalition. But because of their disengagement, their influence on the political process is diminished relative to the more partisan voices in the mix. This tells me that polarization may be driven as much by apathy in the middle of the political spectrum as it is by energy at the more raucous ideological ends.

Instead of a silent majority, we have a silent plurality — and as Washington goes to war with itself, it's not paying attention.

The best journalists don't let their ideology color their diagnoses. When possible, they hold leaders accountable and write prescriptions for a troubled public. Ingraham says the silent middle needs to engage. I'd suggest they radicalize, because the patient is dying.

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