American stalemate

Art Winslow, a former literary and executive editor of the Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

TAKE the concept of an hourglass economy, in which the middle is squeezed to near nonexistence, and apply it to politics -- the major parties and the gravitations of the electorate -- and you have approximated our plight as Ronald Brownstein lays it out in “The Second Civil War.” Wielding a catchphrase lifted from Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for George W. Bush in 2004 and chairman of the Republican National Committee for part of Bush’s second term, Brownstein calls this “the age of hyperpartisanship,” in which almost every force related to our political life “operates as an integrated machine to push the parties apart and to sharpen the disagreements in American life.”

Party leaders have taken the gloves off, and Brownstein wants them put back on before we’re sorry -- although he suspects many of us, whether red state or blue, are sorry already and waving the white flag. “What’s unusual now is that the political system is more polarized than the country,” he writes, and “the impulse to harmonize divergent interests has almost vanished from the capital”; increasing divergence, “not the breadth of the underlying divisions itself, is the defining characteristic of our era.”

Brownstein, former chief political correspondent for The Times and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for his coverage of presidential elections, contends that we are caught in a feedback loop of extremism in party politics: The GOP delivered a punishing preemptive strike, and the Democrats, caught off guard and pummeled from snoozy to woozy, are attempting to shake it off by fighting back in equally blunt fashion. Like a breeder reactor, this type of politics creates its own fuel.


Many surely consider revivified opposition to the party in power all to the good, but Brownstein argues cogently for why the overall situation is not, and why -- when it comes to such matters as border security, budgetary concerns, greenhouse gases and fighting terrorism -- we are stalemated by either/or choices and kept from “the constructive compromises between the parties required to confront these problems.” Using polls from Gallup and the Pew Foundation and election studies conducted since 1948 by the University of Michigan to buttress his points, along with plentiful interview material and examples drawn from congressional history throughout the last century and into this one, Brownstein presents both a biting critique of current political practices and an investigation into their origins.

The contrast with good old-fashioned gridlock -- the classic complaint about Washington, the major parties having long obstructed each other’s goals -- is telling. Especially since the election of 2000 but stretching back to the 1994 midterm elections, the Republican Party has morphed into “a centrally directed, ideologically coherent institution that demands loyalty, isolates and punishes dissent, and mobilizes every conceivable resource allied with it against the other side.” Bush and his advisors accelerated a process already underway “by rejecting the assumption that controlling the center of the electorate is the key to success in American politics.”

Lest one think this characterization of a scorched-earth strategy is a partisan argument and without basis -- and Brownstein’s preference for Clinton-style negotiative politics rather than Bush’s top-down, insular approach is clear -- the author, like a good poli-sci professor, marshals evidence from primary sources. For example, from Newt Gingrich, who led a revolt in the House against the elder Bush’s plan to raise taxes in a budget deal and explained: “The number one thing we had to prove in the fall of ’90 was that, if you explicitly decided to govern from the center, we could make it so unbelievably expensive you couldn’t sustain it.”

When President Clinton put forth a plan in 1993 to halve the budget deficit over the ensuing five years (deficit reduction being a historic conservative goal, recall), not a single Republican voted for the bill -- not in the House, not in the Senate. The 1994 midterm elections, in which the Republicans gained 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, was, in Brownstein’s reckoning, “a milestone in the polarization of American politics,” one that “institutionalized in the GOP a strategy of accentuating political division to build electoral support.”

Fast forward to Karl Rove, a political operative convinced that the center does not hold in this era of slice-and-dice voter targeting: The swing vote, said Rove, “dissipated over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. . . . People who had been, in the 1950s, and particularly the 1960s and early 1970s, up for grabs, have made a decision.” Hence, the Republican electoral strategy of increasing the turnout of its committed base instead of widening its appeal (“Deepen, not broaden,” is how Brownstein puts it), with the result that those outside the circle are ignored. Implicit in Brownstein’s analysis is recognition that such a strategy can yield near-term electoral success but prove ruinous in the long run, through a backlash among the disenfranchised.

Political historian Richard Hofstadter’s insight that the major parties are hodgepodges of “various and conflicting interests” and thus subject to conciliation and compromise no longer applies Voting along party lines in George W. Bush’s first term ran at 90% among House Republicans, almost 86% among House Democrats, 89% among Senate Republicans and 85% among Senate Democrats, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. This may be compared with levels averaging 71% or less through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter years -- with the uptick beginning, as might be expected, under Ronald Reagan. Brownstein calls it “a level of lockstep uniformity unimaginable only a generation or two ago.”

Between then and now, Brownstein argues, we’ve seen a “great sorting out” in American politics, creating far more uniformity in the Republican and Democratic parties and a growing alignment of ideology and partisanship into two spheres separate and very nearly equal. According to the American National Election Studies, 26% of Americans considered themselves liberal in 1970 versus 28% in 2000; 38% identified themselves as conservative in 1970 versus 43% in 2000, with shrinkage among those identifying themselves as moderates, whose share in each major party has declined.

Brownstein catalogs related phenomena along the way: the rise in think tanks and special-interest groups since the 1970s, the role of the press in exacerbating political catfights, the Internet as an organizing and fund-raising factor in campaigns, conflicting perspectives between the Democratic Leadership Council and the more confrontational “New New Democrats,” congressional evasion of its oversight role, the battles over Social Security and healthcare and finally (skimpily), the war in Iraq. His is a left-leaning-centralist approach and one that airs the limitations of a third-party alternative, but similar themes have sounded from elsewhere in the political spectrum. Last year, conservatives Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, in “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track,” cited “the escalation of the permanent campaign, the collapse of the center in Congress, the growing ideological polarization of the parties” as among the factors “relegating bipartisanship on Capitol Hill to a nostalgic, bygone time.” *