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Politicians, Parties, Polarization and Partisanship
Posted by: McQ on Monday, February 20, 2006

We see any number of articles these days about the polarization of the electorate and the shrillness of debate. Most noting the polarization and the screaming are appalled. They’re interested in why this apparent condition has evolved and what we can do about it.

I’m not sure we can do anything about it. It is, unfortunately, a systemic flaw. In his book “The Failure of the Founding Fathers”, Bruce Ackerman makes a very strong case that what we’re now seeing is the natural result of some flawed thinking by such giants of our founding as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In fact, it was the election of 1801, which placed Thomas Jefferson in the presidency (on the 36th vote of the House of Representatives, the electoral college having been deadlocked) which changed the dynamic of governance forever. That election began the changes which have evolved over the intervening centuries to our present problems of “polarization” and “partisan politics”. Both of these problems are crippling our ability to have the type of political conversation necessary to move our nation forward in a united way.

As Ackerman points out, the founders were revolutionaries who had a radically different approach to governance. What was clear to those who have studied them is they abhorred democracy. It was that abhorrence specifically which caused them to opt for a republican form of government. Under that form they believed that rational men of good conscience could be persuaded to participate in government without resorting to partisanship or the appeal of faction. They would serve because it was the right thing to do, they’d govern for all and they would then go about their business as citizens when they had done their duty. George Washington personified that approach and did his best to ensure that revolutionary concept would remain in the forefront of public service.

Unfortunately he and the others were dead wrong in that regard as Ackerman informs us:
“I begin with the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and its failure to forsee the development of democratic party competition. Following the teachings of classical republican thought, the Convention equated parties with factions and considered them unmitigated evils. Two-party competition is at the core of modern democracy, but the Convention had a very different aim. It sought to create a republic that transcended faction, not a democracy in which parties rotated in office. Its complex constitutional machine aimed to encourage the selection of political notables to govern in the public interest, and to disdain faction.”
The initial purpose of the electoral college was to render faction (and democracy) moot. As Ackerman points out, it was created to “reduce the chance that a political opportunist could ascend to power.”

So when, in 1787, the Convention created the electoral college, the delegates reasonably assumed that the selection of a statesman “who transcended petty factionalism” as president, was assured. But the rise of Federalist and Republican parties culminating in the controversial election of Jefferson (states on rival sides threatened to call out their militias in order to coerce their candidates selection) made the faction of parties an unforeseen and unwelcome but permanent and corrosive part of the American political landscape. Party competition undermined purpose of the college, and popular elections of politicians, especially the president, all but destroyed its usefulness. In modern times it is viewed as an anachronism at best and an irrelevancy at worst. It is also ironic that it was Jefferson’s candidacy which began what Ackerman calls the “plebiscitarian presidency”.

We’re often reminded that over the centuries of America’s existence, there has always been fractious competition between political parties. “It’s nothing new”, goes the line. But it was also, given Ackerman’s point, not what was intended by the founders either.

Thus endeth the history lesson. But it is critical to understanding, despite the myth of infallibility that has grown up around the founders of this country, what we have today isn’t at all what they wanted or intended. It is also critical to understand that where we are today isn’t uncharted territory in which we landed as a result of the founders, but the very familiar territory of past failed societies which our founders wanted to avoid but were unable to as it turns out.
The question is - given the fact that factional (party) politics is the reality and is responsible for the existing polarization and partisanship - “how do we ‘change gears’?”
And that brings us to the current dilemma of extreme polarization and corrosive partisanship we find ourselves in today. What it will take to extricate ourselves and again work in a bipartisan manner? The ultimate question is do we have the will, political or otherwise, to do so?

Mortimer Zuckerman of US News & World Report wrote a piece in last week’s issue about the state of our “national conversation” and why it is “too shrill, too polarized, to inflamed and too inimical to our national interest.” He entitled it “A House Divided” and blames various parts of the political culture for our woes while warning that today our “divisions encourage our enemies, dishearten our allies and sap our resolve. We must change gears”.

The question is - given the fact that factional (party) politics is the reality and is responsible for the existing polarization and partisanship - “how do we ‘change gears’?”

Zuckerman looks at two areas in particular which he believes are driving and aggravating the situation and preventing our ability to have the conversation we so desperately need to have among ourselves.

The first (a ‘driver’ of the problem and a direct result of factional politics which makes the problems more acute) is party primaries.
Party primaries, with low turnout, have come to be dominated by ideologues supported by special-interest groups that fund negative advertising. Winning elections has turned more on getting out the base vote—Karl Rove's winning strategy in 2004. Turnout is stimulated by wedge issues, which inflame the activists and often leave moderate voters unhappy at their choices. American opinion is less polarized than the parties' positions on highly charged social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer.
Factions (parties) driven by other factions (special interests with increasingly narrow interests and wedge issues) are what are dictating the dialogue within parties and driving issues at election time. Given that the extreme elements of the parties are choosing the candidates through the primary process, it is no wonder that more and more Americans feel disenfranchised from the party with which they formerly identified. The center, under the present process of primary elections, is all but forgotten. And it certainly isn’t well represented at election time either. It’s is certainly pandered too, but when all is said and done, the base remains the driving force for the party and the base has become increasingly located at the extremes.
The result is two rival factions, poles apart, engaged in eternal shouting matches while striving for leverage to increase their overall political advantage and power.
The trend in primaries is apparently getting worse and worse as it turns more and more in on itself and loses a bit more of those closer to the center each time. Those that feel disenfranchised because of that eventually become apathetic and soon the extremists are running the party. An argument can be made that we’re approaching that reality now. The result is two rival factions, poles apart, engaged in eternal shouting matches while striving for leverage to increase their overall political advantage and power. Very few attempts are made to work together for the betterment and advancement of the nation as a whole. Under those pretenses, there is no real possibility for conversation or bipartisanship. And while this conflict is evident and of concern, no one seems to know why it exists.

Then there is a second “current” which helps aggravate the problem:
Then there are the media. When TV broadcasting first hit its stride, Walter Cronkite on CBS and his counterparts on ABC and NBC created a kind of town hall meeting, a trusted consensus of values for the mediation of issues. Today, only 50 percent of Americans say they are very or fairly confident of the accuracy of the major media. The roots of the big change seem to me to lie in the way cable and radio have developed. In the old days, broadcasters were restrained by the "fairness doctrine," which more or less confined media to the middle of the ideological spectrum. That doctrine was effectively repealed with the advent of the cable news channels, which built audience by presenting programs with sharp partisan viewpoints, with opinion and invective served up as news. On-air conflict is described as "good TV," presumably trumping relevance, accuracy, and fairness. CNN's perceptive former anchor, Aaron Brown, put it well: "The fact is it's easier to cover the extremes; they make the most noise."
The media isn’t what it used to be, but then was it ever what we thought it was or it claims it was? “Remember the Maine” is a slogan from a war in which the US essentially engaged at the behest of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer and as a result of yellow journalism. Some find it ironic that one of the key prizes one can win in journalism, the “Pulitzer prize”, is named after one of the nation’s worst yellow journalists..

There are two points in Zuckerman’s critique of the media. One is a variation of the “if it bleeds it leads” theory of journalism. Obviously if news enterprises don’t make a profit, they’re not likely to be around to brag about cleaving to their journalistic principles. So, just as obviously, the media wants to appeal to the viewing, listening or reading desires of its subscriber base. Unfortunately, aided and abetted by the media, that taste has gotten more sensationalist as time has passed.

As Brown intimates, the focus is no longer on fair treatment of the issue by journalists, but instead on the circus which surrounds it. How many times have you seen some political issue devolve into a discussion about whom among the politicians said the most outrageous thing about that issue? And, following that, how many times have we seen the focus of the media then feature further statements of outrage about the previous outrageous statements, while the issue at hand is completely forgotten? As long as this sort of culture remains prominent within the major media, consumers will continue to seek alternative products.
Statesmen have a tendency to address the issues facing the nation with the idea of resolving them in a bipartisan fashion. Politicians have the tendency to address issues facing their party and their power with a partisan attitude focused on extending that power. We need more statesmen and far fewer politicians.
Zuckerman then turns – in the face of two rival political factions constantly fighting for control of the government - and all but calls for government control of the media through the resurrection of the late and unlamented “fairness doctrine”. He also seems to feel that part of the problem lies with the fact that more outlets and more information is available than before. The explosion of cable, blogs and radio onto the scene contribute to the problem.

First, deciding the type or amount of content isn’t a role for government. And it certainly won’t cause a larger percentage of Americans to suddenly become “very or fairly confident of the accuracy of the major media.” Only reforming how the media approaches its job will do that. And there doesn’t seem to be much will to be found among the various media organizations to do that. The whitewash in which CBS participated regarding the Bush AWOL story is indicative of that lack of will.

Only when the major media evaluates its own performance and makes a conscious effort to produce fair and accurate reporting as a priority will we see any of this change. Blaming the demise of such an ethic on cable, blogs and radio is simple avoidance of the problem and a healthy dose of blame shifting. Appealing to an increasingly partisan government, regardless of which party is in power, to produce “fair and balanced” reporting through legislation is just ludicrous on its face.

However, that said, I certainly understand Zuckerman’s frustration concerning the media, and even as he attacks talk radio and blogs as the worst of the worst, I’m sympathetic to his overall point:
Talk radio aggravated the trend. It is listened to by about one sixth of the adult public and is overwhelmingly conservative, somewhat balanced by the liberal rationalism of National Public Radio. The Internet that has become such an important source of information for college students and graduates is largely polarized, too, coagulating on specific news blogs that thrive on gossip, speculation, and polemics. The cumulative result has been a decline in democracy toward a fragmented populism. People mobilize around smaller special interests and remove themselves from the search for the common good.
I won’t argue that talk radio hasn’t aggravated the trend. But then, given that talk radio has evolved into what Zuckerman characterizes as an overwhelmingly conservative medium, one has to ask “why?” And the answer, whether the perception is true or not, is that conservatives, for a time, felt as if they were isolated and their point of view was not represented in the mainstream media. The talk radio medium, beginning with Rush Limbaugh, found a gold mine of pent-up frustration in that regard and has exploited it. The evident or existent bias of the media can be and is endlessly debated, but what can’t be denied is that the medium of talk radio found a substantial segment of our population which felt underrepresented in the media as a whole and turned it on. It is the media, in general, which should be looking to itself as the institution which failed this segment and all but created the audience for conservative talk radio. However, that said, Zuckerman’s point about talk radio increasing factional fragmentation is obviously valid.

And it is certainly valid when one considers political blogs. Just like talk radio, they have no ethical or traditional prohibition from declaring where they fall on the political spectrum. They also attract the same sort of readers as talk radio draws as listeners – the activists and political junkies. The difference is readers in contrast with listeners aren’t carefully screened and are allowed to freely comment. Thus comments on blogs have a tendency toward stereotype, hyperbole and wild and vicious partisanship, where any exchange between partisan rivals tends to descend into curse ridden shouting matches. Add anonymity, and the level of discourse further deteriorates. Naturally, the situation has lead to a further coarsening of political dialogue. To add fuel to the fire, politicians have come to be drawn to blogs which tend to reflect their own thinking and political leanings. In some cases they are posting on them or enlisting the help of blogs on issues. This, as a whole, has all but eliminated opportunities for the rational exchanges of ideas on blogs.

The question is, given the worsening reality of factional party politics and the existence of the aggravators noted, can we indeed have a national conversation? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be “no” under the present conditions. If that is the correct answer, and there has been nothing to this point to dissuade one from accepting it as such, the obvious way to begin to fix the problem is by addressing those institutions highlighted above.

First the political parties. Whether they were what the founders wanted or not, they exist and they aren’t going to go away anytime soon. To begin to fix the problems of polarization and partisanship, political parties must first recognize the importance of rising above both and striving toward a national comity which makes a priority of working with their political rivals on issues of importance to all Americans. That requires dedicated and capable leadership which puts the nation above the faction of party. Instead of trying to find advantage in the other’s mistakes, leaders must develop statesmen-like attitudes and discard partisan political attitudes. Statesmen have a tendency to address the issues facing the nation with the idea of resolving them in a bipartisan fashion. Politicians have the tendency to address issues facing their party and their power with a partisan attitude focused on extending that power. We need more statesmen and far fewer politicians.

While it would be wonderful to demand that the citizens of the US force politicians to adopt a more statesman-like attitudes, it simply won’t happen that way. It is going to require farsighted political leadership which recognizes the importance of working for the good of the country instead of the good of the party. When those in power recognize this problem and put the good of the nation before the good of party, then we’ll begin to break this trend toward polarization and extremes. Unfortunately, to this point, we’ve not seen such leadership emerge on either side (nor does there seem to be any on the horizon) which has statesmanship as a priority.
As for the media, it must look within itself and it must reshape itself into an institution that provides fair and balanced coverage of the news instead of primarily considering the entertainment value of the stories it covers.
As long as politicians remain beholden to special interest factions and are allowed to stay in power despite this by their constituency, nothing will change. In fact there’s every indication it will get worse. As long as the system used to select those who are nominated to positions of power is skewed toward the radical elements of the party (thorough the present primary system), not much is going to change. In a way, the smoke-filled back room selections of nominees seemed to have been more beneficial in producing statesmen over politicians in the past than does the present system of selection. Today we have popularity contests in which the path is indeed wide open to political opportunists whose first priority may be power and not enough of the reasonable men the founders hoped would be leading us. As I pointed out above, this is very familiar territory. The trend we are now witnessing points us more and more toward the same end suffered by other failed societies who began as free societies.

As for the media, it must look within itself and it must reshape itself into an institution that provides fair and balanced coverage of the news instead of primarily considering the entertainment value of the stories it covers. It must decide whether it’s a profit oriented entertainment venture dedicated to maximizing revenue by whatever method necessary or whether it’s going to be a dedicated news agency with a charter to bring accurate and complete coverage of the news to its subscribers. It can’t be both. And the tendency lately has been to use talk radio and blogs as excuses to not do the latter in favor of doing the former. The plethora of evening “news shows” on MSNBC, Fox and CNN demonstrate the trend. They’re nothing more than talk radio with pictures, most of which become shouting matches before the show concludes.

The media needs to return to its idealized roots if it desires to be a part of the solution instead of, as Zuckerman asserts, being part of the problem. It needs to ignore the distraction of blogs, talk radio and “news entertainment TV” and concentrate on cleaning up its own house by making a decision to again become serious news providers whose ethics demand fairness, completeness and through follow-up.

For this nation to again move forward, political parties must change radically and become statesman-like enablers of a national conversation. The media must become the trusted facilitator of such a conversation. Until each is willing, and able, to fulfill those roles, the polarization, partisanship and coarse shouting will continue unabated, much to our national detriment. Realizing the historical background to the predicament we find ourselves in and considering the lack of political leadership of the type necessary to change our condition, I’m not at all optimistic about such a conversation being possible anytime soon if ever.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Starting on p. 167 of The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria discusses the damage done by decline of the party machine and the consensus candidate chosen in the smke-filled room in favor of the primary system.
Written By: Kevin
URL: http://
Great post. Excellent post.

Written By: Shaun Kenney
Political power maybe, It seam more likely that it is the BIG MONEY one can make as a politician or feeding off a politician or a politicians campaign.
Written By: Coaster
URL: http://
Sorry, still trying to get beyond...
the liberal rationalism of National Public Radio
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
Yes, Mr. Flacy, that one line does seem to undermine Mr. Zuckerman just a bit...

But aside from that, I propose that the only way to end partisan rancor at the national level is, basically, to end that conversation. How? Federalism. By returning virually every issue to state control, we could eliminate the fundamental motivating force behind national partisanship. Just imagine if abortion, affirmative action, health care, welfare, education, drug regulation etc. were all STATE issues. Virtually all of the partisan dust-ups would occur at the state level, and in states where the majority of the populace is relatively of one mind on most issues, there would be little to speak of in the way of partisan invective.

If we limited the national govt. to truly NATIONAL concerns, there would at least be far less to fight about on the national level, and maybe we could have a foreign policy debate that wasn’t steered by competing views on abortion.

To be honest, I view this as a very unlikely scenario, but less unlikely than the two parties spontaneously reforming themselves when there is so much at stake. As for the media’s role in this, blogs and talk-radio have simply given a voice, for the first time in decades, to the ideas and preferences of the right. If before the national conversation were less rancorous, it is only because one side wasn’t even being heard.
Written By: CNH
URL: http://
The basic premise is flawed about the failure of the Constitutional Convention. Didn’t the Federalist Papers say that the structure of government was created specifically to "set ambition against ambition"? Of course they knew and understood that men would compete vigorously for office and personal political power. They did HOPE to reduce faction and avoid political parties but they saw the biggest risk in regional alignments. Those regional alignments gave us the Civil War but are hardly the major factor today in spite of the talk of Red States and Blue States. They were not 100% successful but please remember, it could have been worst.

The discomfort we are experiencing today with all our heated political rhetoric has two sources. First, blogs and media in general have a lack of accountability. How much has CBS suffered from its blunder and lack of self-correction on the Bush military service story? What social corrections are applied to a poster with really stupid, hateful, or disruptive content?

Yet, the heart of the problem, as I see it, is that the country is undergoing a real rethinking of past political assumptions. It’s messy and it’s painful, but we are working things out amongst ourselves. Gradually, public political power is shifting from liberal concepts to more hard-nosed, conservative ones. We are being challenged by Islam and nagged by European socialism. Democracy is a tough system but, given a fair chance and a little time, produces strong, valid policies.

We citizens have been taking it too easy - I hope people are waking up and realizing that it is time for some hard thinking and decisionmaking. The "extremists" are typically the people who take the time to articulate positions that require changes. Let them be heard, on all sides. Those without a contribution, or are just acting out of naked self-interest will be rejected.

Written By: Whitehall
URL: http://
I’d go with CNH on that, for a decentralization of some programs. Personally, I think that would liberalize red states, since the decisions about welfare and affirmative action would no longer be taken for granted, but would be at issue every election. Therefore, a higher participation in state politics by those affected by such programs. Also, if conservatives stopped being able to blame Washington, they might have to actually fix something, which we Dems doubt they can do.

Great post and excellent commentary. Your point on the primary/back room conflict is interesting. You may want to consider, however, that where party machines are weak, a primary can help candidates gain name recognition and strength before the general election, whereas a back room decision would grant the nomination of a weak party, which is little comfort to an unknown candidate.

It is good to see someone recognizing that the "partisanship" is nothing new. The sky is not falling. We just have to temper things.
Written By: Adam Sharp
Great post! There is a lot there to digest.

I agree with CNH and Adam Sharp: Federalism is the most obvious way to solve the problem, for the reasons they articulated.

Adam, I could not resist taking a swipe at this:
"Personally, I think that would liberalize red states, since the decisions about welfare and affirmative action would no longer be taken for granted, but would be at issue every election...Also, if conservatives stopped being able to blame Washington, they might have to actually fix something, which we Dems doubt they can do."

Actually, the reverse would happen. With Red States providing little or no welfare benefits, and Blue States providing very nice welfare benefits, where do you think all the welfare kings and queens will go? Eventually, the influx of welfare recipients will break the proverbial state banks as most of the wealthy and the businesses will move to the Red States to get away from the crushing tax burdens of the Blue States. You can look at California over the last 15-20 years for the economic example of this happening. Eventually, the benefits will have to be reduced, thereby forcing the state’s leaches to go to work.

In order to keep up with the Red States, the Blue States will have to become more conservative (and less socialist).

This is why the Dems are traditionally against Federalism. It promotes competition between states, much like the private sector does in a capitalist nation.
Written By: EdMcGon

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