Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Partisan Rancor, Then and Now

In a recent post, I suggested that much of the blame for the quality of the political campaigns resides with the major parties. The view that political parties have become more partisan and that campaigns have increasingly sunk to the least common denominator seems to be widespread. I have called this the politics of distraction, and by shifting the public's attention from the essential to the superficial, it does the nation a great disservice. The mainstream media are also complicit in this shift. We sense that it wasn't always like this--my preference for the discourse in the Nixon-Kennedy debate compared to the Bush-Kerry debate is evidence that I think there was a better time in the recent past.

But even the last half century is too short a time period to think about partisanship in politics. I recently finished Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph J. Ellis. The book focuses on the decade of the 1790s when the Republicans and Federalists feuded over the legacy of the American Revolution--whether its objective was to be independent of any central government or simply the British central government. The battle to succeed Washington--who was the only one able to transcend this partisanship--was hotly and venomously contested. Jefferson's scheming in particular contradicts any suggestion that the partisanship of modern times is unprecedented. Better historians than I can fill in the history of partisanship that has been with us since then.

So why does everyone seem to believe that partisanship is getting worse? My preferred explanation is that many people who are alive today came of age during a very unusual period of history in which partisanship was dormant. Not non-existent, but certainly not front and center like it had been before and is now. Consider the arc that began with Roosevelt's landslide re-election in 1936, intensified during World War II, crested during the early years of the Cold War and the space race, began to decline with the assassination of JFK, and ended tragically with Vietnam and Watergate.

During this span, strong presidents kept the nation unified against the external threat of the Soviet Union. Broadcast journalism was just coming of age and served first to unify the country around a common set of middle class values. Legislators worked across the aisle to pass significant legislation in foreign as well as domestic policy. But violence at home and abroad and criminal activity in the Nixon Whitehouse tore the unity apart. In the absence of a stable ruling coalition, the exceptional period was over. Partisanship was free to return, and with more modern technology for organizing and communicating along party lines, it has grown more virulent over time.

I'll offer some more hopeful possibilities for how the situation might be improved in a later post.


Jake said...

“My preferred explanation is that many people who are alive today came of age during a very unusual period of history in which partisanship was dormant”.

I agree.

Between WWII and Reagan there were Democrats and Liberal Republicans and nothing else. They never argued about programs, they argued about how much to fund the programs and who best could run them. There was little clash over ideas.

Then Reagan hit Washington and the fun began.

John Samples said...

I find it strange that an economist would have mixed feelings at best about partisanship. After all, another name for partisanship is competition. The era of non-partisanship was also a long period of one-party domination of the federal government and most state legislatures. About the same time the Japanese effectively entered the U.S. auto market to such good effects, the Republicans began to effectively compete for political power. We can be nostalgic about the market dominance of the Big Three is autos in the 1950s, but the fact is, by the 1970s, the cars were crap and the Japanese entry improved American welfare significantly. I don't see anything "virulent" in entry in economic or political markets. Such entry is, no doubt, unpleasant for those who have long dominated a market, but their misery is a small price to pay for the benefits of entry.

jult52 said...

John Sample: I wouldn't necessarily equate competition with partisanship. Partisanship is a particularly invective-filled type of competition.

Nick said...

It seems to me that partisanship is a key part of the dialectic that promotes good, consensus policies. While as a Libertarian, I would rather the government not create many policies in the first place, however the ones they create in a two-party system should at least exist in the best interest of all citizens, not just for the constituents of the poliical party that is in power that time. Furthermore, it prevents one party from gaining too much legislative power. The theory that partisanship is some unique, infective strain of competition, could actually be positive in the sense that it gives more power to the electorate. Being "infective," it elicits support from people at the lowest levels and makes them more important for success of a political agenda.