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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

There are indeed rational arguments for this. For years, southern whites clung to the Democratic label because of memories of the Civil War, while many liberal Northerners supported Republicans because they disliked big-city Democratic political machines. Neither party was ideologically coherent.

Today, it’s clear that the prayers of the midcentury reformers have been answered. The Republican party is clearly and nearly unanimously a conservative party, while the Democratic party is the natural home for liberals.

As a result, there are more party-line votes in Congress than there were half a century ago. There are fewer friendships and alliances across party lines. Parties with supermajorities can enact their programs (e.g., Obamacare) even in the face of hostile public opinion.

Another idea peddled by political scientists and some thoughtful liberal politicians half a century ago was that there should be more party discipline in Congress.

Representative Richard Bolling, frustrated that Democratic House speakers didn’t force southern conservatives to vote the liberal line, wrote two books in the 1960s advocating this. Liberal political scientists and columnists liked the idea.

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So when Democrats won big majorities in the Watergate year of 1974, San Francisco Representative Phillip Burton, in a typical backroom maneuver, engineered the election of Democratic committee chairmen and important subcommittee chairmen by secret ballot.

House Republicans adopted a similar rule, providing for election by an elected steering committee, after their big win in 1994.

There’s a certain logic to this, and I believe the results on balance have been positive. You don’t see senile chairmen frozen in office by the seniority system (a progressive reform in 1911) anymore, and both parties have generally chosen competent chairmen.

But — and here’s the answered-prayers department — you also get more partisan politics. Anyone wanting a chairmanship someday had better not dissent from party orthodoxy very often.

A reputation for bipartisanship doesn’t help you get ahead when members of the other party don’t get a vote.

The fact is that in a free electoral system, politics will always be adversarial. And in a two-party system, it will often be bitterly partisan in tone.

You can pray that things will be different. But you may not like how your prayers are answered.

— Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner © 2012 The Washington Examiner



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