The impulse for harmony in politics is understandable. All else being equal, most of us would prefer civility to narrow-minded partisanship and petty bickering. The difficulty is, of course, that all else is not equal. Most of us would accept partisanship and bickering if it meant the enactment of better policy.
This is the problem with facile appeals to comity and non-partisanship. When people innocently ask why the parties can’t get along, there is often a veiled assumption: The other side needs to stop dragging their feet and get with the program — our program. They would be perfectly willing to fight (rather than get along) if it meant that their vision of justice would be enacted. Thus they display bumper stickers proclaiming “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” when in the opposition, and denounce partisanship when in the majority.
This problem has afflicted political parties since the birth of our republic. The Founders embodied this tension between the desire for political harmony and the necessity of political conflict. George Washington denounced the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his farewell address, and Thomas Jefferson famously declared that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” in his first inaugural address. But at the same time, the Founders engaged in bitter squabbling, using partisan newspapers to spread slanderous rumors about political opponents. And these petty tactics resulted in an infamous set of laws passed in the name of preserving political harmony: the Alien and Sedition Acts.
This tension between political harmony and political conflict has produced total confusion and hypocrisy in many of today’s commentators. In this new book, two longtime Beltway political analysts lecture readers on how dysfunctional Washington has become, and how the Republicans are responsible for it. They thus produce a book that suffers from exactly the sort of one-sided narrative they denounce.
Their argument is relatively simple: There are “two overriding sources of dysfunction” in today’s politics. The first is “the serious mismatch between the political parties . . . and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act.” The second is “the fact that . . . one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier.”
The first of these two propositions — that our party system has been transformed and polarized over the past several decades — is worthy of serious consideration. This story is familiar to most political scientists: “Political parties today are more internally unified and ideologically distinctive than they have been in over a century.” The parties have become essentially nationalized. Republicans tend to hold the same political views as other Republicans, regardless of geography. There is very little difference between a northern and a southern (or western) Republican. The same is true of Democrats. The causes of this trend are numerous (political, migratory, and demographic), and they ultimately came to a head in the 1960s, when Democrats lost their strong hold on the South and Republicans’ strength in New England began to wane. Mann and Ornstein’s account of this trend, though it spans only ten or so pages, is interesting and readable, and is a good introductory treatment of this important topic.
But the authors devote most of their effort to defending their second proposition — that “the Republican party has become an insurgent outlier,” incapable of coexisting with a well-functioning democracy. Their argument bears all of the characteristics, and the subtlety, of a rant. There are conspiracy theories and paranoia, identifying the usual suspects (Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers) and the not-so-usual suspects (John Roberts). Bizarrely, several pages are dedicated to discussing a chain e-mail about congressional pensions.
The resulting conclusion is that we face an unprecedented situation, in which one major party is so beyond the pale that it threatens the very fabric of the country. Mann and Ornstein are very clear that what happened last summer with the persistent battle over the debt ceiling was evidence of a crisis. But several pieces of anecdotal evidence do not constitute a proof. A book that offered serious discussion of a widening philosophical gap between the two major parties and linked that gap to an increase in partisanship would be a fascinating and important contribution. Unfortunately, that is not what Mann and Ornstein have written.