Thursday, August 22, 2013


By Ronald Fox

I grew up politically, meaning I developed my political consciousness, in the turbulent 1960s. This experience, along with values inculcated in my early family life, left an expansive progressive mark on my political ideology. In those formative years, I frequently stood on principle, or so I positively labeled it; more correctly, I was an impatient idealist who saw compromise with progressive principles an ultimate sin. Neither Republicans nor Democrats appealed to me: the former being hopelessly out of touch with, and callously insensitive to, the struggles of poor and minority peoples, and the latter timid and overly willing to compromise progressive values. But compromise they did, enough to form bipartisan coalitions that moved many pieces of landmark laws on such important issues as civil, voter and labor rights, consumer and environmental protection, and medical care for the poor and aged. Nevertheless, entrenched in my dogmatism I derided the unholy alliances that produced legislation that fell short of my principles and expectations, and took special pleasure in lambasting the Democrats for selling out.

As I grew older, and more cognizant of political realities and possibilities, I became more comfortable with half-loaf compromises. Rather than seeing compromise as evil, a sellout to principle, I began to see them as a necessary condition for effective governing. Such is political maturity, I suppose. Like many others, I took compromise for granted. This is simply what legislators necessarily do, or should do: fight it out on principle and policy, but in the end, find common ground. Oh how things have changed. The gulf between Republicans and Democrats today is deeper and more rigid than I can remember. Both parties seem to believe that the opposing party is always wrong; facts are irrelevant, or just something to be manipulated for partisan gain. Compromise, is a dirty word to today’s extreme partisans. Policy positions aren’t seriously debated; partisan advantage, not problem-solving, is the driving ethos. A discourse that was once relatively civil has become as vehemently adversarial as the European parliamentary parties I once found humorous. Governing in America has become hopelessly gridlocked in a sea of partisan vitriol, a gridlock that has strangled the capacity of our government to address urgent matters and undermined public faith and trust in our political institutions. This is a recipe for disaster.

To be sure, there have been other periods in American political history when partisan divisions were wide, uncompromising, and uncivil. Our nation’s founding, the years surrounding the War of 1812, the Civil War and post-Reconstruction period, and the dark days of the depression witnessed intense partisan bickering and ineffective governance. I wasn’t around at these times to directly experience the hostile political climates, so I can’t offer a visceral comparison. I can say, however, that today’s extreme partisanship has produced more government dysfunction than at any time in my political experience.

My sense of this is confirmed by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who in tracking historical trends find that political polarization has increased dramatically in recent years. How has it come to this? What accounts for today’s hyper-partisanship? Fingers of blame have been pointed in several directions, from the effects of gerrymandering, to ideological dogmatism and to the roles of money and media in politics, to the new generation of political players and changes in our wider civic culture. Recent research, however, places the major share of blame on ideological changes within the Republican Party as lying at the root of our partisan divide.

I realize that such an assertion won’t sit well with Republican faithful, who dismiss evidence and non-partisan analyses that don’t conform with their own ideology, or, for that matter, with scholars who strive for normative neutrality. Discussion of party asymmetry runs counter to the positivistic pressures that afflict social scientists. Nevertheless, GOP culpability is unmistakable and must be a key part of the polarization discourse. I will touch on causal factors in Part II of this essay.

By Ronald Fox

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