Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a conference on political polarization at Arizona State University, sponsored by the School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL). A lot of big names from Washington, D.C., and major universities were on hand to offer their thoughts on why the country is so angry at itself.
It was an interesting conference, and there were ideas aplenty about what is causing the mutual resentment plaguing our politics — the socioeconomic displacement of working-class whites, the increasing atomization of social life, the increasing diversity of the polity, social media, and so on.
My view is that polarization waxes and wanes through eras, and that this is part of human nature. What we today call “tribalism,” James Madison in Federalist No.10 called “factionalism.” It is basically the same thing. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
I’m less interested in the causes of factionalism (Madison gave a comprehensive list in Federalist No. 10) than I am in why it is allowed to flourish in our day. As Madison argued, the purpose of a “well constructed Union” is to “break and control the violence of faction.” Our political system is currently less capable of this than Madison wanted.
A case in point happened on Twitter (where else?) this week. By all accounts Joe Biden is getting set to run for president. His pitch will be as an experienced statesman and “happy warrior.” That was his modus operandi in government; recall in 2011, after the “grand bargain” on taxes and entitlements broke down between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner, it was Biden who cut a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to raise the debt ceiling.
It’s a good pitch, and one that — Biden’s ideological judgments and policy preferences aside — could probably appeal to a wide swath of the country. To that end, Biden recently called Vice President Mike Pence “a good guy.” Hardly a controversial statement, and certainly in keeping with Biden’s style.
Yet it prompted outrage on the left from Cynthia Nixon — the actress from Sex and the City and unsuccessful challenger to Andrew Cuomo for the New York governorship last year. She blasted Biden for calling “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader ‘a decent guy.’” “Please consider how this falls on the ears of our community,” she told Biden.
This is par for the course for the cultural Left. They are not interested in a truce on the difficult intersection of sexuality and faith, or really on any issue for that matter. “Live and let live” is out, as their ideological opponents must be made persona non grata in politics.
This is a relatively unremarkable symptom of our polarized age. One faction thinks the other is evil, and vice versa. You could point to similar groups on the right that want to deal likewise with their opponents. Read Federalist No. 10, and you’ll see that this is just the same old, same old. What I found so disconcerting is that Biden agreed with Nixon! “You’re right, Cynthia. I was making a point in a foreign-policy context, that under normal circumstances a Vice President wouldn’t be given a silent reaction on the world stage,” he later Tweeted.
Why would Biden genuflect to Nixon? The show for which she is most famous has been off the air for 15 years, and it is not like she is widely known among moviegoers for any other reason. Cuomo crushed her last September in the New York primary, besting her by 30 percentage points. Why would Biden, whose reputation is built on a combination of niceness and pragmatism, cave so easily to somebody with such a select appeal?
The answer is simple: Nixon’s faction, though narrow compared to the electorate at large, punches way above its weight class in the Democratic primary. Biden cannot afford to offend such a small, but strategically well-placed group before he launches his candidacy.
That leads to my concern about our current form of polarization. We have allowed the angriest, most strident, least compromising forces within our society to have the best position to decide who wields political power. Sure, swing voters in the middle of the country get to choose between the Democrat and the Republican, but months, even years, before that happens, the eventual nominees have to curry favor with the hardcore ideologues.
This is an especially worrisome quality of the presidency, which should reflect polarization the least. If there is anybody who should be above the fray, who should endeavor to see the merits of both the LGBT and Christian communities, and to find middle ground beyond factionalism for the public interest, it should be the president. He is the one constitutional officer we all elect, and he is the one who occupies the ceremonial role of head of state, both of which make him a kind of tribune for the nation.
We should not have a system of presidential nomination and election that weeds out candidates who can serve this function competently. As the 2016 contest clearly demonstrated, the Republicans have no such system. Since he emerged as a candidate for the White House, Donald Trump has alienated a wide swath of the country, and if he manages to win reelection in 2020, it will only be because the country hates him less than whomever the Democrats nominate. As for the Democrats, their nominees have tended to to be quite factional in the postwar era. And as the Biden–Nixon interchange illustrates, the eventual Democratic nominee is going to have to win over the angry Left before he or she faces the general electorate.
This analysis moves beyond cultural, social, and economic causes of polarization in the electorate. Because let’s be honest, there is probably nothing we can do about that anyway — all of the theorized forces enumerated at the SCETL conference are well outside policymakers’ ability to influence in a meaningful way. But we do have the power to regulate the power the nastiest among us have in politics, especially by reforming our political parties, which were originally intended to function as mediators between the people and their government. If we are serious about doing something about polarization, I think party reform is where we should start.