Tag Archives: partisanship

Paving The Road To Trump

Politicians, pundits, political scientists and your crazy uncle all have their explanations for the election of Donald Trump, and most of those explanations have at least a germ of truth–or at least, plausibility.

Misogyny certainly played a role. Racism was a huge and undeniable factor. Hillary was a weak/divisive candidate. Bernie supporters voted for third-party candidates. The Electoral College overweighs rural votes. Russian disinformation was effective. Millions of Americans didn’t vote. Etc.

Whatever the merits of these analyses, it’s hard to argue with the observations in Alan Abramowitz’ new book, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump.” Abramowitz argues that Trump is the product of an ongoing multigenerational process that has reshaped American politics.

In his view, Trump is a striking result of that process. Like most other political scientists who concentrate on political party politics, Abramowitz sees the GOP as a conservative party in the sense meant by William F. Buckley: It is “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'”

In a review of the book by Paul Rosenberg in Salon, Rosenberg says

Abramowitz writes that “while Trump won the election by exploiting the deep divisions in American society, he did not create those divisions,” and they won’t go away regardless of what becomes of his presidency. He provides an abundance of compelling, detailed evidence, most of which has been lying around in plain sight — in the American National Election Survey (ANES), the results of presidential and congressional elections, etc. But as with the story about Columbus and the egg, you can stare at something for a very long time before someone else shows you the obvious.

Most fundamentally, Abramowitz argues that the New Deal coalition “based on three major pillars: the white South, the heavily unionized northern white working class, and northern white ethnics” was eroded by post-World War II changes that have transformed American society. Those resenting the changes have become increasingly Republican, those welcoming them, increasingly Democratic.

Abramowitz asserts that racial polarization and the rise of negative partisanship were not only crucial to Trump’s election, but also explain his conduct in the White House “which can be described as governing by dividing.” The thesis of the book is that today’s strongly partisan electorate is deeply divided along racial, ideological, and cultural lines.

Rosenberg asked Abramowitz to identify the three most important–and misunderstood– realities of American politics today. His response:

That because of the rise of negative partisanship, we are in a new age of party loyalty and straight-ticket voting — despite the negative feelings of many voters toward the parties and the popularity of the “independent label.” That the divisions within the electorate are primarily racial and cultural rather than economic. That tinkering with electoral rules will not have much impact on partisan polarization because its sources are deep divisions within the society.

I find this analysis persuasive. And I realize that it is important to understand where we are and how we have gotten here. But the road to 2016 has now been pretty thoroughly plowed, and the more important questions are: where do we go from here? and how do we get there?

As a lawyer I once worked with like to say, there’s really only one legal question, and that’s “what do we do?” That axiom is equally applicable to politics and governance.

I’m waiting for the book that tells us how to resist and overcome the racism, misogyny and inequalities that drive our divisions–the book that tells us what we must do to build a better, kinder, fairer society.

The book that tells us how to calm the fears that make our fellow-citizens hate.

 

 

Where Fear and Hate Take Us

In the wake of the 2016 election, Michael Gerson has proved to be one of the more thoughtful observers of our depressing political scene. Gerson, as many of you will recall, was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, but he is no partisan hack; although he looks at our contemporary scene through a decidedly conservative political lens, he is no apologist for today’s GOP.

In a column for the Washington Post written after the election in Virginia, Gerson considered the current fragmentation of both political parties.

We have reached a moment of intellectual and moral exhaustion for both major political parties. One is dominated by ethnic politics — which a disturbingly strong majority of Republican regulars have found appealing or acceptable. The other is dominated by identity politics — a movement that counts a growing number of Robespierres. Both seem united only in their resentment of the international economic order that the United States has built and led for 70 years.

Normally, a political party would succeed by taking the best of populist passion and giving it more mainstream expression. But in this particular, polarized environment, how is that possible? Do mainstream Republicans take a dollop of nativism and a dash of racism and add them to their tax cuts? That seemed to be the approach that Ed Gillespie took in the Virginia governor’s race. But this is morally poisonous — like taking a little ricin in your tea. Do mainstream Democrats just take some angry identity politics and a serving of socialism — some extreme pro-choice rhetoric and single-payer health care — and add them to job-training programs?

What Gerson calls “ethnic politics” is, of course, virulent bigotry–mostly racism, but also homophobia, anti-Semitism, and a variety of other “isms.’ What he calls “identity politics” is class-based animus.

This fracturing of the American citizenry into tribal identities and various “us versus them” configurations is the ultimate challenge to the promise of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

It’s ironic that at a time when more and more Americans claim to be political independents, partisanship has become so toxic. A recent survey found a third of American parents would strenuously oppose their child’s marriage to someone who is a member of the other party. The Governor of Alabama was quoted as saying she’d vote for Roy Moore–even though she believed the allegations against him– rather than a Democrat, because keeping control of the Senate was more important than repudiating immoral behavior.

Extreme tribalism has also corrupted a significant number of evangelical Christians. Pious pronouncements about morality have proved no match for promises of power. Majorities of so-called “bible-believing’ evangelicals “forgave” Trump for his three wives, his boorish behaviors and his admitted (indeed, boasted about) sexual offenses in return for his promise to restore their theocratic version of Christianity and return its tribal adherents to the privileged position they once held–a privileged position now threatened by demographic change.

These deep-seated divisions aren’t the result of incommensurate philosophies. Political science research confirms that relatively few people vote on the basis of policy agreement or disagreement–instead, most voters choose their political affiliations based upon identity–upon a perception that “the people in this political party are like me,” and the comfort that comes with being among those who are like- minded.

Among the many unprecedented challenges we face–politically, economically, socially–the most important of all may be re-knitting the various racial, religious and social class threads into a single cloth, a fabric representing an inclusive American tribe.

 

 

 

When History is Written…

When the history of the 21st Century is written (assuming there are people alive to research and write it) America’s current decline will be attributed largely to one man–and that man isn’t Donald Trump.

Of course Trump is dangerous. A number of his choices–both personnel and what passes for policy in his childlike worldview–are potentially catastrophic. But he is too delusional and ignorant to qualify as evil.

No, the most evil man in American government, in my humble opinion, is Mitch McConnell.

Trump is simply the result of McConnell’s consistent elevation of partisanship and power over principle. As James Fallows has pointed out, it was McConnell who took the filibuster from a seldom-used mechanism meant to ensure that minority opinions would be heard to a routine method of subverting majority rule. It was McConnell who famously promised to obstruct anything and everything Obama might do, irrespective of whether what was being obstructed was good policy, good for the country, or even if it had originated with his own party.

It was McConnell who, in the  summer of 2016,” put the kibosh on FBI going public with a warning of the Russian interference in the election, which they were already investigating.

And needless to say, it was McConnell who ignored 200+ years of precedent, and simply refused to allow the Senate to do its constitutional duty of advising and consenting to a sitting president’s nominee for the Supreme Court–doing incalculable damage to the rule of law and ultimately, to respect for close decisions that will be handed down by a court that includes a Justice conspicuously occupying a “stolen” seat.

In 2006, as McConnell was about to emerge as the Republican leader in the Senate, Zachary Roth and Cliff Schecter wrote an article for the Washington Monthly titled “Meet the New Boss.”  Here are some excerpts:

McConnell is a staunch conservative and a master of procedure, but no piece of landmark legislation bears his name. Almost the only issue on which he has a national profile is campaign-finance reform, and on that, he’s known as the man who fought it at every turn…

The Senate’s shift toward increased party discipline has been accompanied by a growing willingness to use the legislative process to benefit the Republican Party’s financial backers…

[McConnell is] a master of Senate rules and procedures, and he harbors no presidential aspirations that might distract him from his job. But unlike earlier leaders, he doesn’t keep score by legislative accomplishments. For the first time in recent memory, the Senate will be run by a leader with both the ability and the desire to use the institution entirely for partisan advantage

I’m hardly the only observer who attributes much of  America’s current dysfunction to McConnell. Dana Milbank calls him “The Man Who Broke America.” Milbank starts with one of the many, many examples of McConnell’s hypocrisy and dishonesty:

“No majority leader wants written on his tombstone that he presided over the end of the Senate,” the minority leader said.

He continued: “Breaking the rules to change the rules is un-American. I just hope the majority leader thinks about his legacy, the future of his party, and, most importantly, the future of our country before he acts.”

Are these the words of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the Republican majority changed Senate rules this week to do away with filibusters of Supreme Court nominations?

Actually, they were uttered in 2013, by then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), when Democrats pushed through a similar filibuster change for lesser nominations.

Milbank doesn’t mince words:

No man has done more in recent years to undermine the functioning of U.S. government. His has been the epitome of unprincipled leadership, the triumph of tactics in service of short-term power.

Milbank further documents McConnell’s willingness to subvert longstanding Senate culture in service of rabid partisanship, pointing out that by 2013 his unprecedented, frequent use of the filibuster had blocked 79 of Obama’s nominees; that compared with 68 presidential appointments blocked during “the entire previous history of the Republic.”

The primacy of the rule of law was the most basic premise of the American constitution; as John Adams famously proclaimed, the Founders gave us a government of laws, not men. The constitutional architecture, with its three branches of government and a federalist structure leaving significant authority to the states, was an effort to constrain the abuse of power.

Trump doesn’t understand any of that, and he clearly has no idea how to use the rules themselves to evade those constraints. He doesn’t even know what the rules are.

McConnell, unfortunately, does.

Sticking to Principle

It’s a complaint we hear constantly from both ends of the political spectrum: we want to elect people who will “stick to their principles.” We’re tired of the DINOs and RINOs willing to negotiate with the political “enemy,” look for areas of agreement and–most scandalous of all–settle for results that are less than 100% of what “our” side demands.

Look, I get wanting principal. No one wants an elected official without a spine, or worse, a lawmaker willing to “sell out” her true beliefs to placate a big donor, avoid a primary challenge or cave to pressure from a bigoted segment of the party base.

The problem is, not every compromise is a deviation from principle.

There’s a big difference between ideological rigidity and acting in accordance with principle. It’s a difference that’s invisible to the zealots who see every issue as black and white, every encounter with reality and its inevitable complexities, and every effort to find workable accommodations, a betrayal.

Americans used to understand that it’s better to get half of what you want than none at all. We used to understand that legislation is complicated, and not every description of a bill provided in hysterical internet “alerts” by advocacy groups tells the whole story. We used to recognize that legislation goes through a lengthy process, and that what might have begun  as a step in the right direction might no longer be supportable, even by those who agree with the original intent.

Americans used to understand that issues are complicated, and that we are not well-served by people who refuse to admit or understand that.

And we used to understand that a willingness to blow up Congress and shut down the government in order to get what you want (yes, Ted Cruz, I’m looking at you), or a willingness to cause continuing harm to thousands of people by holding up water system repairs in Flint, Michigan because you don’t believe the federal government should be in the business of providing aid to states (yes, Mike Lee, I’m looking at you) is evidence of grandiosity and disregard for the consequences, not principle.

Effective governance and strategic negotiation aren’t as exciting as grandstanding and moralizing, but we used to understand that we are better served by the former than the latter.

 

Are You a Member of My Tribe?

There’s a lot of research confirming the human tendency to sort other humans into tribes–to distinguish between those who are “us” and those who are “them.” Historically, those categories have primarily–albeit not exclusively–been based on race and religion.

Now, evidently, many of us are basing our tribal identities on partisan affiliation. According to a recent article at Vox,

In 1960, Americans were asked whether they would be pleased, displeased, or unmoved if their son or daughter married a member of the other political party.

Respondents reacted with a shrug. Only 5 percent of Republicans, and only 4 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset by the cross-party union. On the list of things you might care about in child’s partner — are they kind, smart, successful, supportive? — which political party they voted for just didn’t rate.

Fast forward to 2008. The polling firm YouGov asked Democrats and Republicans the same question — and got very different results. This time, 27 percent of Republicans, and 20 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party. In 2010, YouGov asked the question again; this time, 49 percent of Republicans, and 33 percent of Democrats, professed concern at interparty marriage.

What makes this partisan tribalism puzzling is the fact that public opinion on the various issues that confront us are not particularly polarized; opinion surveys show most Americans remaining firmly centrist (depending upon how one defines that term) when asked their positions on  specific issues.  And yet, party affiliation has become a form of personal identity that divides “us” from “them.”

[P]arty affiliation wasn’t simply an expression of our disagreements; it was also becoming the cause of them. If Democrats thought of other Democrats as their tribe and of Republicans as a hostile tribe, and vice versa, then the consequences would stretch far beyond politics — into things like, say, marriage.

And the data was everywhere. Polls looking at the difference between how Republicans viewed Democrats and how Democrats viewed Republicans now showed that partisans were less accepting of each other than white people were of black people or than black people were of white people.

The Vox article describes several experiments that confirmed this partisan bias, some in ways that were deeply troubling. (People awarded jobs or scholarships to less-qualified applicants who shared their partisan affiliation, for example.)

What is driving this phenomenon? Obviously, there is no single cause, but the article does note the role of media:

There are no major cable channels devoted to making people of other races look bad. But there are cable channels that seem devoted to making members of the other party look bad. “The media has become tribal leaders,” he says. “They’re telling the tribe how to identify and behave, and we’re following along.”

Evidently, most of us have a need to despise some “other,” and if the culture frowns upon using race or religion as the operative distinction, some number of us will substitute party.

Others, of course (Trump, Cruz, Pence, et al) will stick with the old standbys of race, religion and national origin.

Evidently, we humans aren’t hard-wired to see other people simply as individuals.