The Agenda

The Roots of Nationalized, Hyper-Ideological Politics

Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Wired, observes that “the Bush years hardened the left’s sense of “what it means to be a Democrat” on some issues,” including unions. He draws on Matt Yglesias’s related claim that bipartisan chumminess among retired elected officials, elite media, and lobbyists matters less now in shaping political outcomes than it had in earlier eras

In a super-literal way, the city that I live in—where people live on the Green Line or in Bloomingdale/Eckington/LeDroit Park or out on H Street NE—is a very different city from the one Leibovich profiles. And the now-dominant political paradigm is one in which ideology and partisanship carry much more weight, and personal connections and relationships carry much less. It’s a paradigm in which all the Democratic Senators support immigration reform, even when they represent Ohio or Alaska or Louisiana. It’s a paradigm in which there’s no set of concessions you make to moderate Republican Senators from Maine to get them to back your health care bill. There are many fewer angles to work, and many fewer favors to call in. It’s in a lot of ways a town that’s remedied the things people used to say they hated about Washington. It’s become a city of principle, and a city where much less gets done in back-room deals. But it’s also a city with much more vicious partisanship and much less of a spirit of “let’s compromise for the public good.” It’s a city that people have come to hate for whole different reasons and in whole different ways.

But whether you think it’s been change for the better or for the worse, it’s clearly the direction things are going. Nationalized, very partisan politics in which elected officials are looking over their shoulders at a blend of ideologically motivated grassroots and ideologically motivated mega-donors and falling in line. Carl Hulse had a piece over the weekend in the NYT about how Harry Reid came to be an orthodox liberal on a whole range of issues that I think tells you the real story of politics today—more sorting, less deal-making.

My decidedly unoriginal thesis is that partisan rancor increases as the competitiveness of a given political system increases. Once the 1994 congressional elections demonstrated that a more ideologically coherent GOP could wrest control of the House from Democrats, the incentives facing the minority party changed dramatically. Rather than work with the majority to influence legislation at the margins, minority partisans preferred to maximize their chances of securing control of the House. This explains the unified Democratic opposition to President Bush’s ill-conceived 2005 Social Security reform push as well as unified Republican opposition to President Obama’s major legislative initiatives, particularly the poorly-crafted Affordable Care Act (ACA). Liberals often insist that Republicans ought to have cooperated with congressional Democrats on coverage expansion, on the grounds that doing so might have led to better legislation. Yet Republican opposition came very close to derailing the ACA, which conservatives saw as flawed in ways that were difficult to repair. (Flattening the subsidies is one idea some Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, had advocated, yet the president and his allies successfully demonized the idea during the 2012 presidential campaign, limiting room for maneuver.) And derailing the ACA would have left congressional Democrats and the Obama administration in an even more politically vulnerable position, given the amount of time they had devoted to securing its passage. Sometimes gambles don’t pay off. Regardless, it’s hard for me to see how this dynamic changes short of large-scale structural reforms that are hard to imagine, e.g., multi-member congressional districts in populous urban regions might yield more Republicans who are inclined to occasionally cooperate with Democrats on various domestic policy issues, or, more realistically, campaign finance regulations that strengthen the parties might yield more centrist Democrats and Republicans in swing districts. Short of that, one party or the other will have to be banished to the wilderness for a very long time before we see a return of bipartisan amity. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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