Polarization Is Here to Stay


Democrats and liberals aren’t going to make polarization go away. The task instead is to build and support institutions and strategies that advance progress in the face of our hyperpartisan politics. Jewcano/Flickr.

October 2012 | Mark Schmitt,

By temperament I’m deeply sympathetic to Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele’s argument in "The Polarization Paradox," and welcome the unusual range of data that they have brought to bear on the subject of polarization and liberal hope, drawing on cognitive science and social psychology as well as institutional political science.

The authors’ point that “compromise and reasonableness can be every bit as potent a weapon for liberals as polarization has been for conservatives” sounds a lot like a sentence I wrote in 2007 about the emerging candidacy of Barack Obama: “Perhaps we are being too literal in thinking that ‘hope’ and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible,” I wrote, “when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure.”

But time has not been kind to my 2007 argument.

We’ve had a natural experiment with reasonableness and bipartisan dialogue since 2009, and, as tactics or weapons, they haven’t performed as well as I, or Obama, hoped. Obama's promise of a new kind of collaborative politics was one he could not keep unilaterally. Republicans quickly realized (see Michael Grunwald’s recent book, The New New Deal) that they could ensure that his central promise was broken, and presidents bear the blame for unmet promises, without excuses. While Obama invested vast time and energy in trying to achieve a bipartisan health reform bill – adopting a Republican framework, postponing action for months while waiting for Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus to achieve a deal – voters continue to think the result is a unilateral imposition of a far-left scheme, using the fact that it had no Republican support, rather than the law's content, as an indicator. While health reform squeaked through, legislation to address climate change, renew economic growth, and achieve other core liberal objectives fell victim to obstruction.

That doesn't mean that the alternative is confrontation and use of unilateral partisan power, as proposed by those who fantasize that Obama could have achieved a more effective economic stimulus or a more comprehensive health reform by going it alone. Obama had no option other than to pursue as much cooperation and collaboration as possible. As Nisbet has pointed out in a separate blog post, that work paid off in support from moderate Democrats from states where Obama was unpopular, who needed to see the effort. But if attempts at cooperation yield no actual bipartisanship, but just some support from Democrats who had even been early Obama supporters in the 2008 contest, it's not much to boast about.

Democrats and liberals can’t make polarization go away. They can't change the modern Republican Party by changing their own. While Nisbet and Scheufele judiciously assign blame for polarization to Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Karl Rove (only one of whom held formal power), a great deal of it is structural. The fluid, cross-partisan political alignments of much of the 20th Century should be seen as the idiosyncracy, partisanship the norm. For decades, there were Republicans -- from the North, the Midwest, the West Coast, and even the border South – who were more liberal than many Democrats, and Democrats, especially from the South, who were more conservative than many Republicans. By the 1990s, when I worked in the Senate, the Southern Democrats were more moderate than their predecessors, having built biracial coalitions, which created new configurations. But all of those Deep South seats are now held by very conservative Republicans who win election solely on white votes. And the moderate Republicans are all gone now as well, replaced by fairly liberal Democrats.

The old system, in which party, region and ideology were not aligned, allowed enormous flexibility to build bipartisan coalitions along multiple axes. Creative presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, and creative legislators, such as Senator Lloyd Bentsen or Rep. Henry Waxman, could move pieces around to create success in many ways. But with a well-defined liberal party and a conservative party, each with a mostly-unchanging regional base, the options for forming coalitions become more limited. Usually coalitions involve either all of one party aligned with one or two of the closest-to-the-center of the other (such as retiring Senator Olympia Snowe), or a party acting alone, such as by using the 50-vote budget reconciliation process. Policies such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax are almost impossible to achieve by either strategy, because they have differing impacts by regions: Democrats from coal-producing states will resist them, and Republicans will oppose these policies because they are proposed by Democrats. In 1990, by contrast, the landmark Clean Air Act Amendments were passed by signficant bipartisan majorities.

So the question for liberals is not, should we play the same game as the conservatives? It is, how do we hope to achieve some progress in a structurally polarized system? What kinds of institutions are appropriate to working in this world? It is true that, in 2005, a number of liberal donors came to realize that the institutional structures of the right, such as its think tanks and leadership development programs, were as important to conservative power as simply winning elections. (Some of us had been proselytizing on this point since the mid-1990s.) Institutions of the center-left, such as the Brookings Institution, tended to be more technocratic, less ideological, less connected to political arguments, often still reliant on the assumptions of the era of liberal consensus of the 1960s and 1970s or the faith that sound research would lead to appropriate policies without a fight. Lacking a coherent ideological or political vision, they could not hope to put forward a compelling agenda for liberalism.

One useful part of that effort was to build institutions that could respond rapidly to propaganda from the right (such as Think Progress or Media Matters, on which Nisbet and Scheufele focus), but another part of it was to help construct a more creative, compelling alternative vision, and to develop policies that could respond to, for example, the financial meltdown of 2008. The same effort built the Center for American Progress (which is not reducible to Think Progress, its blog), and expanded other institutions, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, and media outlets such as Pro Publica. Simultaneous efforts, involving some of the same donors as well as less partisan ones, built out explicitly cross-partisan institutions such as the New America Foundation. While some of this project was pitched as an imitation of the institutions of the right (CAP pitched itself as a counterpart to the Heritage Foundation), both the infrastructure of the right, and that of the emerging center-left, have always had some hard partisan organizations and some that are more independent or issue-focused. The recent fight for the soul of the libertarian CATO Institute is a good reminder of the distinction, and the value of organizations that have some distance from partisan fights: if CATO donor David Koch gets his way, CATO will fall in line with Republican doctrine on drug policy and military spending – at a significant cost to its own relevance and effectiveness.

I’m also disappointed by the solutions that Nisbet and Schaufele propose to ameliorate polarization. The “top-two” primary, which is designed around the shaky theory that polarization is a result of primary challenges, or fear of primaries, in which a party's extremes dominate, is perhaps the very worst of the numerous electoral reform options on offer. In practice, it has resulted either in idiosyncratic outcomes in low-turnout primaries, such as two Republicans going to the general election in a heavily Democratic district, or simply reaffirmation of the party establishment's choices, which closes out new voices. (It has also been used, in Louisiana in particular, to ensure that no African-American would ever win statewide office.) Reforms like instant-runoff voting or proportional representation would be much more likely to strengthen moderate voices. And nothing about money in politics? There's considerable evidence that donors drive elected officials to extremes, especially as the more ideologically driven donors, who can put millions into a SuperPAC, play a larger role. Citizens United is not the end of the story – New York City, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and other states and localities have shown that public financing, with incentives for small donors, can change this dynamic.

The paradox for liberals is that the public is not as polarized as politicians are, and that's particularly true for younger voters, who are responsible for the rebirth of Democratic liberalism since 2004 and for its future. The Millenials are overwhelmingly Democrats, tolerant social liberals, environmentalists, and see the need for government action to solve problems – but they are not “Fighting Dems,” seeing Republicans and conservatives as mortal enemies. In fact, to over-generalize, they recoil at such fierce partisanship. The challenge for liberals is to build organizations and strategies that can operate in a partisan and polarized world at the level of Washington, and increasingly also state capitals, but also build consensus and dialogue in the field. Exercises in deliberative democracy, such as those facilitated by the organization America Speaks, on the budget or health care, might well change the dynamic of fights on those topics by engaging tens of thousands of Americans in the deep choices involved. In other cases, alliances that are not just cross-partisan, but cross-ideological, might yield breakthroughs. For example, the Right on Crime initiative, which has roots in a conservative Texas policy organization, has begun to mobilize conservatives around the idea of reducing over-incarceration – for moral as well as fiscal reasons. (This also suggests that the new alliances will not begin in Washington, DC.)

The old way of doing politics, the model of the 1970s, 80s, or even 90s, is gone. It's not coming back, because even without Gingrich, Rove, and Norquist, politics would be split cleanly on ideological and partisan lines. The challenge, not only for liberals but also for moderates and for conservatives who hope to find some middle ground that makes progress towards their own goals, is to build institutions and strategies appropriate to this new alignment.

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