Let me note at the start that Jim Cooper not only represents my home state of Tennessee, but I count him as a friend. He is without a doubt a thoughtful student of Congress. While I do not agree with everything in his article, I find much of it on target and all of it worthwhile. But I want to add a new and slightly unorthodox perspective on the polarization of the parties in Congress and in the country. It seems clear to me that many of the concerns Cooper raises can be tied to the real ideological differences between the parties on issues and that these differences have been growing over the last few decades. Most observers see problems with these developments; I see some advantages.
Representative Cooper spends a good deal of time applauding the Congress under Speaker O’Neill’s leadership. While not perfect, the Congress of the 1970s and 1980s sought, according to Representative Cooper, to pursue good public policy and did so in a reasonably civil fashion. As Cooper notes, “members disagreed without being disagreeable.” The House sought to make “policy, not partisan mischief.” As Cooper sees it, this appealing state of affairs, started to change in the 1990s with the rise of Newt Gingrich. Partisanship became the driver of Congress, and good public policy took a back seat to politics. (It’s worth noting that this new pattern in Congress is not a Republican thing. The Democrats followed suit when they retook control in 2007.)
Cooper’s argument reflects the conventional wisdom that polarization has detrimental effects on the political system. A highly polarized Congress features more disagreements on policy, and those disagreements often become fierce. This should come as no surprise: with larger differences between the parties, the stakes are higher. When one side wins, it can push policy in ways that are antithetical to the other side’s views. Part of the reason the Tea Party has complained so loudly is that from its position on the ideological spectrum, President Obama and the Democrats are pursuing unfathomable policies. This “policy gap,” so to speak, is the fuel for these complaints, protests, and, frankly, nastiness.
Surely this polarization comes with costs. It is, for example, unfortunate that politicians on both sides of the aisle so often rely on overheated rhetoric. But we should not overstate these problems, nor should we be overly romantic about the past. There were many critics of Speaker O’Neill and Representative Michel. Neither stuck to his principles; both, according to critics, engaged in compromise rather than leadership. This very complaint bolstered Newt Gingrich. Each era confronts tough problems, and our political system must find a way to solve them, or at least ease them.
Polarization has some real upsides.
Despite all the worry, polarization has some real upsides—not enough, perhaps, to make it a desirable state of affairs, but enough to give us pause before we start clamoring for a return to the 1980s. The most important advantage of polarization may be that the parties now offer the public clear choices. Remember when George Wallace contended there was “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the parties? In the 1960s and ’70s, the parties were ideologically much more similar than they are now. At the time, we had liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Politics, as a result, was less interesting and engaging to the public. Just consider that turnout in American elections has been on the increase over the last two decades. In addition, the public has been more interested in the last two presidential campaigns than any campaign since 1952. These campaigns were tough, competitive, and very negative. Yet the public responded, as it has to today’s highly differentiated parties in noticeable and important ways.
The position that polarization will benefit the public is not new. It is a long-standing intellectual tradition in American political science, albeit one that used to employ different terminology. Rather than speaking of the benefits of “polarization,” scholars in the 1950s such as E.E. Schattschneider advocated “party responsibility,” which, by its nature, requires polarization: polarized parties make it possible for the public to hold each party accountable for its actions. When the parties are ideologically similar, the public has trouble identifying who was responsible for failing to solve problems or who should get the credit for success. This situation undermines accountability and, therefore, democratic rule.
I am not arguing that we now have a responsible party system, and that, therefore, the cause of democracy is being advanced by polarization. My goal is far more modest. I simply want to encourage readers not to jump too quickly on the anti-polarization bandwagon. Parties that have strong differences offer the country some real and tangible benefits. It may be that these benefits do not outweigh the costs Cooper describes, but we need to think through all angles of this problem before reaching a firm conclusion.
We desperately need sober assessments of politics by keen observers such as the esteemed representative from the Volunteer State. Even though I disagree with some of his ideas, I’ve tried—as I hope others will—to do that “without being disagreeable.” Democracy is often about disagreement and working toward solutions based on competing ideas. Representative Cooper understands that central point of democracy, and I hope others will join him in this important conversation.