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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Polar Regions

by digby

Steve Benen:

It's worth noting, from time to time, the practical and ideological problems with this approach to problem solving. The parties disagree -- as they should; it's why they exist -- and are more polarized now than at any point in modern political history. Ezra has posted this chart from Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal before, but I'm glad he ran it again yesterday. It shows current political polarization is at its highest point since the 19th century:

This political environment obviously makes compromises and "bipartisan" solutions very difficult, since the parties, more so than at any recent point, simply see matters of state in fundamentally different ways. But the polarization among lawmakers in both chambers also, as Ezra noted yesterday, "makes it virtually impossible to govern in a system that is designed to foil majorities and require a constant three-fifths consensus. It's not good if the country is virtually impossible to govern. Problems don't stop mounting while we try and figure things out."

There's been some talk lately about the effort to convince at least some Republicans to support health care reform, the way plenty of Republicans support Social Security and Medicare in previous generations. In those eras, the parties were closer together, and there were center-left GOP lawmakers from across the country who were amenable to outreach.

The thing is that we've always been polarized in various ways, just not politically --- city/country, north/south, rich/poor, native born/immigrant, white/black. It's just that there are times when our two party system doesn't break down along those neat lines and basically represents two big tents comprising bits of each side of each divide. Indeed, we have that right now on some very important issues such as the high finance and national security. So the polarization is not really complete even in polarized times like these.

But we are polarized politically on much of our domestic policy, even as much as industry spends to buy off members of both parties. This is where the ideological/culture wars are played out in this country, even to the extent that we had a real live civil war over the most thorny polarizing issue in American history.
I think we actually have two different countries in many ways and when it breaks neatly into the two parties, as it would naturally tend to do at times, it creates gridlock if politicians fail to recognize the state of play and use it to their advantage instead of clinging to outmoded coalitions that no longer reflect anything meaningful.

The Republicans actually did that during the Bush years and had they not fallen prey to hubris and gross mismanagement, they could have lasted a bit longer. (Maybe that's inevitable with a party that is based upon the idea that government is just another profit center, I don't know.) But they did master the institutions and ran them in a partisan fashion and I'm not convinced that if they had had a president who had a genuine mandate (as opposed to a very dubious ascension to the office) and an administration that was not obsessed with fighting old wars and avenging old slights, they could have had a much more successful run. They understood power in ways that the Democrats don't.

FDR did(and he sometimes overreached too, as we well know) but he did use the power of his mandate and his institutions completely and thoroughly and didn't follow some irrelevant social models of propriety over effective governance. And the interesting thing about that graph is that during the depression, there was much less polarization.

Even more interesting is that this is the kind of thing the president was saying to the American people at the time:

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace --- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for meā€¹and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

The American people know from a four-year record that today there is only one entrance to the White House by the front door. Since March 4, 1933, there has been only one pass-key to the White House. I have carried that key in my pocket. It is there tonight. So long as I am President, it will remain in my pocket.

You can't help but wonder if people today heard a little more of that and little less bipartisan kumbaaya over high taxes for rich people and industry being "too big to fail," if the polarization might just drop a bit. In fact, when you read that, you have to wonder the problem isn't polarization at all, but whether the country just isn't polarized in the right way.