It’s ironic that Chris Bowers decided to post about the advantages of partisanship this morning because I have been thinking more and more about the advantages of post-partisanship. It’s not that I really disagree with most of what Bowers (or Yglesias) has to say about the issue, but I am looking to the immediate future and I think their analysis is based on the recent past.
Yglesias uses the example of the Civil Rights struggle to make his case for the merits of political polarization. It’s important to consider this as a rebuttal not to post-partisanship but to the mushy middle ground politics so often advocated by the likes of Joe Klein and David Broder.
Under conditions where there’s very little polarization, like the congressional politics of civil rights in the 1950s, you get chaos. Perhaps a certain Democratic incumbent is slightly better on civil rights than his Republican challenger. But the Republican ranking member on some key committee may well be better on civil rights than is the Democratic incumbent. Thus it’s possible that backing the incumbent is good for civil rights unless beating the incumbent would cause the balance of power to shift and bring the Republican ranking member into the majority. What’s a voter to do? Who knows?
The battle over civil rights was not really comparable to any of the pressing challenges we face today. Either blacks were going to be afforded equal rights or they were not, and there weren’t any mushy middle ground compromises available. Because the two sides of the argument were much more regional than partisan, the polarization was not wholly partisan in nature. The fact that Republicans and Democrats could make common cause against Jim Crow was a strength, perhaps a necessary strength, and not a defect. If I were to make a contemporary analogy, the upcoming battle to confront global warming and the energy crisis is going to pit energy consuming states against energy supplying states, and we can expect politicians from West Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Alaska to come together to fight positive change, regardless of their party affiliation. And I think this shows up a weakness in Yglesias’ argument.
Weak parties make the life of a Washington power broker more interesting. Basically, there’s more power brokering to do. There are more horses to trade. There’s more dealing to wheel. Politics becomes a fascinating game of three dimensional chess. Polarization is boring. Two parties lay out there programs, people vote, and depending on the election outcomes and the veto points in the system, legislation results. But polarization is simpler for voters. It connects actions to results. And it brings about higher levels of participation as a result.
Polarization may be boring (in the good sense), but in the effort to pass meaningful energy and environmental legislation it is vastly preferable to deal in three-dimensional chess than it is to have two parties take up rigid positions and fight to the death. Yglesias still has a point. Global warming denier Jim Inhofe is the ranking member on the Environmental & Public Works committee. If he were to again become chairman, he could muck up the works on any legislation coming out of that committee. So, voting for a environmentally solid Republican for senate could have unintended consequences if it led to a change in party control.
However, it is much easier to pass legislation that has bipartisan support because a minority party always has more discipline than any ad-hoc coalition of legislators. A minority party that is unified against a piece of legislation can give and withhold financial support, or grant or strip committee assignments. There are a host of ways that a party can maintain discipline that are unavailable to a regional non-partisan coalition.
Overall, I think Congress is more effective and functional when it consistently brings together ad hoc coalitions to create legislation than when the two parties line up in lockstep.
Looking forward to the next Congress, it looks quite likely that the Democrats will significantly increase their majorities in both houses, and they have to be favored to regain the White House. If that comes to pass, we will be facing a political climate that we haven’t seen since Jimmy Carter was president. The Republicans will have to reinvent themselves to rebuild their numbers and I expect that will become much less ideologically rigid. Just as the Democrats are likely to pick up more socially conservative seats in places like Mississippi and Louisiana, the Republicans will look to elect environmentally and socially moderate candidates in the north and on the coasts. They may elect more Bob Barr/Ron Paul like candidates that can simultaneously support both the NRA and the ACLU.
This will open up the possibility of the ad hoc coalitions that were the norm until, roughly, the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. And I truly believe that is a good thing. First of all, this development will be taking place in the context of a left-leaning ruling majority. But, secondly, it is just easier to get things done in Congress when the majorities transcend party identification.
This is quite distinct from the type of politics envisioned by David Broder. This isn’t a Unity08 or Michael Bloomberg mushy middle. It’s one party rule, where the solutions come from the left in a general sense, but where the left is no longer synonymous with the Democratic Party and the right is no longer synonymous with the Republican Party.
In this type of environment, policy is not easily reduced to a Crossfire style of partisan bickering. Yes, it involves some level of chaos and its diminishes the brand of the major parties. But it is a whole lot healthier to have citizens and politicians banding together over issues than over brute party loyalty.
It only seems like we have to be superpartisan to succeed because we have been living in a right-leaning political environment where the Republicans have refused to compromise or act in good faith. But, once consigned to the minority, they will have no choice to get beyond mere obstructionism. We have to try to envision a post-partisan world. That will make fighting for it all the more satisfying.