Is America's Partisan Divide Really as Harmful as the Hand-Wringers Tell Us?

The Curmudgeon on Politics

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Is America's Partisan Divide Really as Harmful as the Hand-Wringers Tell Us?

One of the most revealing comments of this political season was made on Friday, July 31, at the U.S. Capitol. House speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked at a press conference why the Democrats and Republicans were having such a hard time agreeing on the third covid-19 relief bill. She didn’t mince words.

“We don’t have shared values,” she said. “That’s just the way it is. So it’s not bickering. It’s standing our ground. We’re trying to find common ground.”

This is a very different analysis of the partisan divide that confronts the nation on nearly every issue, not just this one. The conventional wisdom of the David Brookses of the world, the “thoughtful people,” as Paul Krugman calls them, is that Americans have more that unites them than divides them. If elected officials would just stop playing games for political advantage, these hand-wringing centrists tell us, all our conflicts would shrink to respectful differences of opinion that could be handled by polite, gentlemanly debate.

But what if these pundits are wrong and Pelosi is right? What if America’s partisan divide is the result not of political gamesmanship but of a fundamental divergence in moral values? What if we disagree not only about how to create a better America but also on what a better America would look like? What if the Left sees that optimal society as a communitarian one where every citizen is responsible to every other citizen—and to evidentiary facts? What if the Right sees that optimal society as an individualistic one where each citizen is responsible only for oneself and to one’s own beliefs with as few restraints and obligations as possible?

Is it better to paper over those differences as if they don’t exist? Or is it better to acknowledge them and have a battle over what kind of nation we’re going to be? In the final sentence of the above quote, Pelosi acknowledges that we live in a democracy and we have to compromise to pass legislation. But she’s declaring that it’s going to be a compromise between two competing value systems, and she’s going to try to get as much as she can for her system.

She’s going to get as much economic relief as she can for the many, and she’s going to fight Mitch McConnell’s attempts to emphasize legal impunity and tax breaks for the few. She’s not going to pretend that this is merely a political game, and she’s not going to be blackmailed by the other side refusing to put their cards on the table. In May, her caucus passed a covid-19 relief bill that expressed their values; in early August they were still waiting for McConnell’s caucus to declare themselves.

Some kind of relief bill will eventually get passed, but Pelosi’s comment highlights a pervasive misunderstanding of American politics. Political parties are not the cause of the nation’s government division and paralysis; they are a reflection of it—and a possible solution for it. There are two starkly different visions of American society—the communitarian and individualist—and those differences would exist whether or not we had parties to articulate those visions and argue for them. At last we do.

That’s because America’s political parties today are ideologically coherent in a way they weren’t for most of the 20th century. For most of those years, the Democratic Party was a coalition of labor unions, immigrants and segregationists, while the Republican Party was a coalition of laissez-faire capitalists and small-government liberals. These internal conflicts kept both parties in the center, leading to jokes about their candidates being no different than Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the look-alike, think-alike characters in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.

That all changed when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was the right thing to do, he knew, but he told his aide Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.” The Democrats might have survived that rupture if Johnson hadn’t dug himself a hole in Vietnam he couldn’t climb out of. Instead the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” peeled the segregationists away from the Democrats and secured the election of Nixon, Reagan, the two Bushes and Trump.

Meanwhile, the Democrats reassembled a new coalition of ethnic minorities, knowledge workers, feminists and communitarians. As demographic changes have swelled the ranks of those constituent groups, the Dems have won the popular vote in five of the first six presidential elections of the 21st century.

This is a simplified version of a complicated history, but the pertinent point is this: America’s two parties now make ideological sense. The debates within the Democratic Party are between the left and the far-left, while the debates within the Republican Party are between the right and the far-right. Each party now stands for something, and we can have fight over America’s values without each message being muddied by an incongruous coalition.

Those changes are what enable Pelosi to say, “We have different values.” Each party now operates according to principles distinct from the other. Each party’s leaders can now argue for those standards because they know the party’s members and voters share those ideals.

A lot of people bewail this situation. They long for the days when parties contained a mish-mash of beliefs, and leaders could easily find centrist compromises. When you hear people say, “I hate these political arguments between the Left and the Right—why can’t we just get along?” what they’re really saying is, “Why can’t we preserve the status quo that made me comfortable when I was younger?” That’s easy to say if you’re a college-educated, white-collar professional (as this writer is) but not so easy if you’re not.

A lot of people want to pretend that politics are like sports. You can root for the Dallas Cowboys, and I can root for the Baltimore Ravens—we can have spirited arguments over which team is better and still remain friends. But politics are not like sports. Identifying with a particular football team has no moral basis; it’s the result of geographic accidents and impulsive decisions as a youth.

Politics do have a moral basis. It matters if you regulate police violence too much or too little. It matters if you regulate carbon emissions too much or too little. It matters if you regulate access to guns too much or too little. It matters if you follow the scientists on covid-19 too much or too little. It matters if you protect the unemployed from eviction too much or too little. These are moral decisions, because people will live and die as a result.

So, as Pelosi suggests, let’s have a frank and open debate about the nation’s moral values. Let each party make its ideological case and try to persuade the independent voters and non-voters. Let’s drop the pretense that we’re just playing a game. If it makes some people uncomfortable, that’s “good trouble,” as the late John Lewis put it.