Polarization – 2

June 19, 2012

So how did we get this way?

If the range and distribution of opinions among the general public is much the same as it was 60 years ago, and I believe it is, why is the government suddenly gridlocked now? As the Pew survey indicates, it is largely because the political parties have become ideologically more monolithic, and so less willing or able to compromise. And this was in turn largely because of a deliberate effort by a number of conservatives – Bill Buckley most famously, and of course Barry Goldwater – to turn the Republican party into a distinctly conservative party, marginalizing if not driving out the more moderate members. A large part of their success is due to Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, which helped conservative Southerners overcome their century-old aversion to the “Party of Lincoln.”

But who can say they were wrong to do this? I certainly disagree with the larger part of that complex of ideas the Conservative Movement placed at the center of public discourse; but given that there are people who for whatever reason do believe these things, who can blame them for wanting to have them represented by a major party? After all, many of us on the Left would like very much to move the other party farther in our direction, though I like to think we’re a bit more pragmatic about it than our opponents, at least at the moment.

And once the Movement was underway, is there anything that could have been done to stop it, let alone should have?

Should all those millions of folk out there – the ones with a visceral sense that “progress” since the New Deal has been going in the wrong direction – have continued to feel marginalized, as they increasingly did in the 1950’s? And likewise, should the more ideological of the folk on my side feel marginalized, always being sold out by the compromisers who pander for our votes?

But if it’s OK – and even necessary, once the genie is out of the bottle and a critical mass of people demands it – to have an ideologically based party system, then how do we get government to work? How do we prevent every election from being perceived as an Armageddon, an all or nothing fight to the finish between two diametrically opposed visions?

A large part of the punditry nowadays seems to be taking a blame-both-sides approach, wishing for a return to the days when political leaders were more insulated from the waves of public opinion, and could deal among themselves without being accountable to that fraction of the electorate which is excited enough to turn out in primaries. But can the genie be put back in the bottle, and even if it could, should it?

One legal scholar a couple of weeks ago wrote an op-ed blaming the Constitution. He proposed a number of measures calculated to make the system run more smoothly. Most of the responses I’ve seen tended to be negative, and I agree with them. Overriding judicial review? Sounds like a good idea – to my side – when it’s a case of Citizens United or Dred Scott. Not so much so if it’s a Roe v. Wade or a Miranda. And for everyone who feels that way there’s at least one who feels the same with the cases reversed. Introduce a referendum at the federal level? David Brooks, who is always interesting even though I don’t really agree with him very often, had one very good line about budget failure in referendum-prone states: given direct control over legislation, voters’ natural tendency will be to “tax themselves like libertarians and subsidize themselves like socialists.”  Another Pew survey gives evidence of this…

So the problem isn’t the Constitution, it’s the Country and the People. It is us. We simply can’t agree on the most basic aspects of our vision for the future; and what is different about the present era is that we are now empowered to impose our radical disagreement on our leaders, who formerly didn’t have to worry about us so much…

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