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The Pros and Cons of Partisan Divide
In a free-electoral, two-party system, politics will always be adversarial.

Phillip Burton

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Michael Barone

‘Answered prayers,” Saint Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said, “cause more tears than those that go unanswered.” Especially, I fear, the answered prayers of political scientists.

These days, you hear academics and pundits bemoaning the hyperpartisanship of our politics. It has never been worse, some say.

This shows a certain ignorance about history. Go back and read the things that John Adams’s and Thomas Jefferson’s partisans were saying about each other in 1800.

Or reflect on the fact that Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s first vice president, and Andrew Jackson, the first president to call himself a Democrat, both killed men in duels.

And when you go back in history searching for that golden moment when politicians of both parties spoke warmly of each other you find only some glimmers here and there.

Some eminent political scientists today argue that we would have less virulent partisanship if we entrusted the drawing of congressional and legislative districts to nonpartisan commissions.

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Maybe that would have some marginal effect. But in California and Arizona, which recently set up such panels, Democrats have cleverly gamed the system to get favorable district lines. Republicans will presumably try to do the same next time. In any case, there will still be many one-party districts.

I ascribe much of the partisan tone of today’s politics to two changes urged by the political scientists I studied in college nearly half a century ago.

One was the idea that we should have one clearly liberal and one clearly conservative party. This was such a popular argument in the 1940s and 1950s that Gallup used to test it in polls.

Political scientists and sympathetic journalists were annoyed that there were lots of southern (and some non-southern) conservatives in the Democratic party and that there were a fair number of pretty liberal Republicans in big states like New York and California.

Wouldn’t it make more sense, they asked, to have all the liberals in one party and all the conservatives in the other? That way, they said, voters would have a clear choice, and the winning party (the liberals, most of them hoped) would be able to enact its programs into law.



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