By Mike Koetting May 8, 2022
Months ago, I asserted that democracies require two mutually reinforcing things to survive—a wide spread belief in the importance of democracy and a sense that the government was actually working. I then reviewed some data that showed a weakening of the democratic imperative in the minds of voters and postponed the question of belief in the efficacy until a later day.
That day is today.
I don’t know how exactly one would decide whether a government is “working” or not. America has not descended into the absolute chaos of some clearly failed governments. On a day-to-day basis, we manage to keep things plausibly together. One can point to issues not being well addressed—many are big and important—but when one looks around the world, most other nations are struggling with the same issues. They are hard issues.
Nevertheless, it seems confidence in the American system is flagging. Most Americans tell pollsters the country is on the verge of failure. Many go on to say the problem is hyper-partisanship. I believe that is indeed the source of both many of the real failures in governing and the widespread perception of failure.
But I also believe hyper-partisanship should be no surprise. The real surprise, given the structure of American politics and governance, is that we have been relatively successful in avoiding it in the past.
How We Got Here
The Founding Fathers had very clear notions that having a diversity of pollical opinions was key to a successful democracy. Madison writes, in Federalist 10:
Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests, you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.
In Madison’s mind, one faction could oppress and two factions would fight for the ability to oppress the other. The minority was safe only with more than two factions.
Washington, in his farewell address, worried particularly about the “founding of parties on geographical discriminations.” He feared citizens of each region might live among only like-minded partisans who reinforce their grievances against the other party/region.
Their solution was to create political structures that required compromise to work and to argue strenuously that pollical parties should never gain a foothold.
They lost that argument within years. Turns out political parties are a necessary correlate of democracy. For the bulk of our history, this was not a fatal flaw because there were enough cross-cutting issues that party structures were fairly fluid, even when there were nominally only two parties. The Civil War, by far the biggest rupture in the pollical fabric, was an irreconcilable argument about slavery. That argument was not drawn along party lines, but it did illustrate in technicolor what could happen when an existential political issue gets divided along geographic lines.
Since the Civil War was not explicitly aligned on party lines, for the next hundred years it was possible for the two parties to coexist, each with a divided constituency on what it meant to be a citizen and who was entitled to that status. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, the latter primarily associated with the segregationist south. As Lee Drutman points out in his essential book, Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop, there were in essence four political parties. Getting anything done in Congress required people to work across the aisle often with strange bedfellows. That is why Joe Biden recalls being able to work with notorious segregationists. It allowed him to actually pass legislation. The truth is that bipartisanship happened because of the fluidity of parties, not the other way around.
But that changed, starting in the Sixties, when issues over race, sex and lifestyles began to divide the population into two distinct cultural identities. These began to coalesce around the political parties. Southern Democrats became Republicans and Liberal Republicans became Democrats.
As progressives, particularly civil rights advocates, strengthened their presence in the Democratic party, it moved toward open party primaries to get around the control of the historic power brokers, who were typically more conservative. Republicans followed suit. These changed the dynamics of the elections. Among other things they required more money. Much more money. Between 1974 and 2016, the costs of running for Congress increased by more than fourfold, after adjusting for inflation. Separated from traditional party brokers, candidates turned to national sources to finance their elections. National sources, however, tended to follow national issues more than local issues. Urbanization without political bosses and the lingering impact of the Second World War and the Vietnam fiasco contributed as, bit by bit, the parties became nationalized.
By the mid-90’s, the entire political landscaped had flattened into two, fully separated, nationalized political parties. It was Madison and Washington’s nightmare come real.
Consequences of Totally Distinct Parties
At first blush, it might seem that having two, distinct parties would increase the likelihood of compromise. Unfortunately, it is exactly the opposite. In a situation where there are only two parties, there is little incentive for compromise. If the two parties are about equal in size, the party out of power can maximize its chances of getting power back by obstructing the other party. If the difference between the two parties is large, the majority party has no need to compromise with the minority party.
It is a recipe for either majority domination or gridlock.
Worse yet, since this system rewards magnification of differences between the two parties, they come to see the differences between them as existential. Only one in five Americans believes that voters of the opposite party share the same core American values. At this point, programs make less difference than identity. And since compromises on identity are the ultimate betrayal, there is less compromise.
Further, when a party convinces itself that America’s “true” cultural values hang in the balance, it believes every possible tactic is justified. In the book How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt specifically identify two practices that signal a slide into authoritarianism. One is that each party believes that whatever is within the letter of the law is okay, even it violates the spirit of the law. The other threatening practice is the loss of toleration of opposition, which similarly follows from a belief that one’s opponents are motivated by values intradiscally inimical to your view of the nation’s fundamentals.
All of this leads to ever more polarization since both sides believe they face existential threats and even those who would prefer a more moderate view have nowhere to go outside their party without walking away from their broader identify. See how quickly the “Never Trumpers” became reabsorbed into the Republican party. It wasn’t necessarily they grew to like Trump more. Rather, he was closer to their positions than Democrats—and those were the only two choices on offer.
The divide between our parties is hardened by the difference between urban and rural populations—Washington’s geographical split concern. While we tend to think in terms of “red” and “blue” states, the reality is that all urban areas are “blue” and all rural areas “red.” (In 2016, fewer than 10% of all counties were decided by less than 10%.) Even where there are “swing” districts, it is usually because the district has a combination of rural and urbanized voters.
Following all these changes, it is not surprising that the pollical parties have explicitly politicized the judicial system, particularly important since the structure of American government gives more power to the judiciary than other countries. Court politicization is known to be a factor of further polarization.
All told, these factors make American politics polarized, probably more than anywhere else in the developed world. This is not unrelated to the fact that no other developed country has only two political parties with a winner-take-all system.
What Do We Do About It?
The key is to break up the totally muscle-bound binary party system. This doesn’t happen all at once—the two-party system is too much a fixture of our political imagination—but we can make improvements on it, many of them suggested in previous posts.
I’ll review them in my next post.