The 2006 election was a highly partisan affair. Defying the late Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O'Neill's refrain that "all politics is local," Congressional contests were shaped by a polarized contest between the national Republican and Democratic Parties. Parties set the agenda of the campaign, provided critical financial and organizational support to candidates, and drove voting choices.
In a year when the political climate favored Democrats, many voters rejected Republican candidates like Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut more on the basis of their party affiliation than for their individual records. To a remarkable extent for an "off year" contest, the election was a referendum on President Bush and the Republican majority in Congress, whose militantly partisan approach to governance during the past five years had vastly narrowed the separation between the executive and legislative branches. The voters appeared to reject the president's handling of the war in Iraq, the majority's conduct in Congress, and the Republicans' inattention to the economic insecurity of poor, blue-collar, and middle-class Americans.
The partisan intensity of the 2006 election was not an isolated event. A number of recent books argue that American politics and government have become more polarized over the past 25 years, although the authors disagree about the depth and severity of that polarization. Not only has partisan rancor increased, but Republicans and Democrats have become anchored in distinct regions, states, and communities: the Republicans in the Southern, border, and mountain states, especially in small towns and exurban enclaves; and the Democrats along the East and West Coasts, especially in the major metropolitan areas. Those regional, state, and community differences mirror intense partisan differences within Congress as well as between the legislature and the White House. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor lamented in a recent speech, "hyperpartisanship" has also deeply implicated the courts.
Most scholars, public intellectuals, and journalists consider partisan rancor a blight on America's tradition of constitutional government. Thomas E. Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, argue, in The Broken Branch, that heated partisanship threatens the separation of powers by subordinating the institutional integrity of the three branches of government, as well as the system of federalism, to partisan discipline.
"Party trumped institutionalism," especially during the first four years of the Bush presidency, they lament, as Republican leaders in Congress defined their task as loyally supporting, rather than critically debating or overseeing, the White House's domestic and foreign-policy initiatives.
Morris P. Fiorina, a distinguished Stanford political scientist, observes in the second edition of Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America that many pundits and scholars fear that party polarization has aroused a deep schism that undermines the popular consensus necessary to sustain responsible constitutional government. A healthy government, in that view, presupposes a citizenry that celebrates individual rights and the separation of church and state; yet partisan polarization threatens to divide Americans on issues such as abortion, evolution, and gay marriage.
Nor has partisan rancor stopped at the proverbial water's edge. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks and into the war in Iraq, party polarization has even become central in foreign affairs. As Mann and Ornstein point out, the Bush White House, supported by Republican leaders in Congress, sought to exploit antiterrorism efforts and homeland security for partisan objectives. In the 2002 election, for example, Bush criticized and campaigned against Democrats who questioned certain provisions of the administration's bill to create a Department of Homeland Security. Some of the Republican Party's campaign ads juxtaposed pictures of the Democratic incumbents that the White House targeted (in Georgia, for example, Max Cleland, a Vietnam War hero) with those of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Antiterrorism was also the critical issue in the 2004 and 2006 elections, as Democrats and Republicans vied over which party was best suited to govern in a post-September 11 world. Foreign policy has never really been free of party conflict, but the current partisan strife seems a novel chapter in the development of the national-security state that was born of World War II and the cold war. Mann and Ornstein express concern that unified Republican rule during the first five years of the Bush administration discouraged Congress from critically investigating the planning for and conduct of the Iraq campaign. By the same token, party conflict over foreign affairs, which is likely to grow more intense now that the Democrats have taken control of the House and Senate, might make bipartisan deliberation about the future course of American involvement in Iraq impossible.
Although polarization among Democrats and Republicans has been cause for concern, its sources and severity are debatable. Fiorina claims that polarization, although a real and pernicious phenomenon, is limited to an elite circle of liberal and conservative activists, and members of Congress. But in Off Center, Jacob S. Hacker, of Yale University, and Paul Pierson, of the University of California at Berkeley, put most of the blame on Republicans. Hacker and Pierson attribute polarization to a relatively small but powerful circle of conservative "power brokers," whose combative posture on social issues has disguised their "off-center policy making" with respect to bread-and-butter policies such as taxes, health care, and Social Security.
Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, also says, in Fight Club Politics, that Republicans bear primary responsibility for recent partisan frictions. GOP leaders like Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, and a loyal band of insurgent conservatives, have transmuted the House of Representatives into the "House of Unrepresentatives," she says. Taking advantage of political and institutional changes two decades in the making, House Republicans exercised power so ruthlessly during their 12 years in the majority that they "undermined the institution's attentiveness to public sentiment by silencing GOP moderates and the more than 200 Democrats who have won the right to represent millions of Americans."
If the political center reasserted itself in the 2006 election, as some exit polls suggest, then partisan rancor might recede during the next two years. Roughly nine in 10 Republicans and Democrats cast votes for their parties' representatives, just as they did two years ago. But the Democrats gained a far greater advantage among independents in 2006 than they did in 2004, which proved crucial to their success in picking up 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate. Several post-election surveys, moreover, suggest that the American people expect President Bush and the Democratic Congress to work together, especially in finding a solution to the Iraq quagmire. Claiming to have heard the voices of the people, both President Bush and Congressional Democrats have expressed a willingness to avoid the rancorous partisanship that has dominated the past two decades of American politics.
Some post-election developments suggest, however, that the White House and Congressional Democrats might honor that pledge more in the breach than in the observance. Indeed, the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and her Democratic colleagues were determined to prevent Republicans from derailing a well-publicized plan to enact a raft of popular measures during the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress. This first burst of lawmaking included bills to tighten the ethics rules for members of Congress, raise the minimum wage, allow more research on stem cells, and cut interest rates on student loans.
Moreover, both the White House and Democratic Party leaders reacted coldly to the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, cochaired by the Republican James A. Baker III and the Democrat Lee H. Hamilton, that sought to hammer out a compromise between the Bush administration, intent on staying the course in Iraq and maybe even adding troops, and Democratic leaders in Congress who read in the 2006 election results a mandate to challenge the White House's conduct of the war. Bush supporters labeled the report, which called for a gradual reduction of America's military presence, a "plan for surrender," while liberals called it a sellout for not proposing a firm timetable for withdrawal.
The bitter differences between Republicans and Democrats over Iraq may reflect wider political conflict. Indeed, some scholars dispute the notion that American democracy has been hijacked by a small band of political activists.
James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, has argued that polarization on cultural, economic, and foreign policy is real and has spread beyond political elites to influence the opinions and attitudes of ordinary Americans. Similarly, the political scientists Alan Abramowitz, of Emory University, and Kyle L. Saunders, of Colorado State University, view the 2004 election — which was, when compared to recent presidential contests, partisan, polarized, and participatory — as the capstone of long-term trends toward deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans, red and blue states, and religious and secular voters. Americans are hardly storming the barricades over abortion, gay marriage, and other emotionally charged issues, those authors acknowledge, but the bitter conflict between Bush and Kerry was symptomatic of a nation that is deeply divided along partisan, geographic, and cultural lines.
Time will tell whether the 2006 election proves to be a "corrective" that restores governance to the vital center of American politics or a new chapter in the continuing polarization of American politics and society. Cast against the broad sweep of American history, however, we should be cautious about viewing partisan rancor as a threat to the republic.
After all, every major transformation in American politics, beginning with the Jeffersonian Republicans' vanquishing of the ruling Federalists, has witnessed intense partisan conflict, fundamental constitutional struggles that have pulled not only the executive and Congress, but also the judiciary, into the vortex of partisan conflict. Cast against the polarizing episodes to expand popular sovereignty during the first three decades of the 19th century, the conflagration over slavery, the disruptive struggles aroused by industrial capitalism during the turn of the 20th century, the struggles to come to terms with the Great Depression, and the explosive battles waged over civil rights and Vietnam during the 60s, the present political rancor seems pretty tame.
Nonetheless, contemporary battles between Republicans and Democrats violate expectations that informed the rise of the administrative state over the course of the 20th century. The expansion of national administrative power, arguably the most critical development of modern American politics, presupposed that social welfare and national security required emancipating the government from intractably localized and patronage-based partisanship. Forged during the Progressive and New Deal eras, the liberal administrative state was embraced by both Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of World War II. The displacement of partisanship by administration, which spanned the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter, was further prompted by the programmatic commitments of New Deal liberalism. "Freedom from want" and "freedom from fear" — embodied, respectively, in the welfare and national-security states — called for "enlightened administration," which militant partisanship appeared to threaten.
The very term "vital center," the title of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s 1949 landmark book, was coined to express the fragile but regnant character of New Deal pragmatism at its height. Tempered by depression, total war, and the Soviet Union's betrayal of socialism, America experienced an awakening during the 1930s and 1940s. It came to scorn the decentralized partisan state of the past and put faith, instead, in the administrative practices that governed the welfare and national-security states.
Nonetheless, Schlesinger warned, "this faith has been and will continue to be under attack from the far right and the far left." He lamented, especially, leftist idealists who used "liberalism as an outlet for private grievances and frustrations," as compared with the "doers" who committed themselves to the "tedious study of detail" in order "to assume the burden of civic responsibility." Schlesinger reserved special scorn for liberals like Henry A. Wallace, who resisted liberal internationalism: Schlesinger tarred them as "doughfaces," a term originally used during the Civil War to excoriate Northern men of Southern principles, but which the progressive historian applied to "democratic men with totalitarian principles."
Schlesinger's fear that the vital center would be sorely tested, not only by conservatives but also by disaffected liberals, proved prescient. The partisan rancor that roils contemporary politics, for all its ugliness, had its origins in the idealistic, insurgent assaults from left and right against the administrative state that insulated American government from public accountability. Pace Hacker and Pierson, leftists, especially the leaders of the civil-rights and antiwar movements, first threw American politics "off center," rejecting the working arrangements of the New Deal state for its compromises with racism and for the imperialism it pursued under the banner of protecting global freedom.
The political scientist Hugh Heclo, of George Mason University, has argued that the attack on the vital center during the 1960s displayed many of the historic lineaments of a "great awakening," the expression of an adversarial civic culture that decried "intolerable gaps between the espoused norms and the lived realities of the [American] system." Although social activists' estrangement from the "establishment" would be tempered during the 1970s, their distrust of centralized administration was institutionalized by public-interest groups. Remaking the presidential-selection process, Congressional institutions, and administrative law, former activists extended liberalism to causes and programs in the areas of civil rights, environmental and consumer protection, and education. In the course of doing so, public lobbyists recast political associations and governing arrangements in a form that called to account the entrenched liberal-administrative state.
The great awakening of the 60s changed not only liberalism but conservatism. Conservative activists, too, scorned the vital center and sought to expose its failure to uphold private property, protect "family" values, and fight communism. By the 1960s, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, had all become, as Heclo puts it, "policy minded," and so they have remained. Put simply, conservatives have embraced the national-security state while liberals have devoted more attention to the welfare state.
Nonetheless, just as contemporary liberals have sought to renew their faith in internationalism by emphasizing multilateral diplomacy, as John Kerry stressed during his presidential campaign, so conservatives have attempted to come to terms with the welfare state through provisions vetted by think tanks. For instance, health-security accounts would encourage individuals to set up tax-free funds to help pay for medical expenses, and Social Security "privatization" would recast entitlement programs in a conservative image. Significantly, both Eilperin's and Mann and Ornstein's accounts of party combat in Congress highlight the brutal partisan tactics the Bush administration and Republican leaders deployed to enact the prescription-drug bill, a deliberate effort to transform Medicare into a Republican entitlement.
Even as both Democrats and Republicans have become more programmatic, policy activism has been allied to a distrust of centralized power that has encouraged aggressive oversight of executive administration, and insurgent assaults on the "Washington establishment." Rather than pursuing solutions to the nation's problems with New Deal-style executive-centered and pragmatic policy measures, contemporary political activists engage in ideological and institutional confrontation that defies consensus and diminishes public trust in government. By the mid-1990s, the now-adult, polarized 60s generation had created an incipient national, polarized party system that roiled and, if 2004 and 2006 are any indications, diminished the so-called vital center of American politics.
Fiorina, as well as Hacker and Pierson, reveals that the fraying of the center and polarization of conservative and liberal activists is a situation ripe for demagogy and increasing disaffection with government. As the bitter Senate contest in Virginia between the Republican incumbent George F. Allen and his Democratic challenger James H. Webb showed, contemporary party politics is not pretty; it risks highlighting personal issues (in that case, Allen's alleged racism and Webb's alleged sexism) that deflect attention from principled debate over the leading issues of the day.
Still, we should be careful not to condemn, out of hand, partisan struggles that stir the welfare and national-security states. During the 1970s, we should recall, leading scholars such as Theodore J. Lowi and Walter Dean Burnham were lamenting the death of political parties, supplanted by administrative tribunals that sucked much of the meaning out of representative government. Their fears had deep cultural roots. Alexis de Tocqueville saw very early in the game that the great threat to American constitutional government was not revolution, a class war, but an obsession with security, the lodestar of the administrative state.
The infatuation with property, de Tocqueville warned, would allow Americans to be "so much possessed by a relaxed love of present enjoyments" that they would lose all interest in political affairs and become indifferent, if not avowedly hostile, to new ideas and necessary reforms. "If citizens continue to confine themselves more and more narrowly in the circle of small domestic interests," he observed, "one can apprehend that in the end they will become almost inaccessible to those great and powerful public emotions that trouble peoples, but develop and renew them." In contrast, party polarization was the most effective antidote to such a moral implosion, for though "the longing to be elected can momentarily bring certain men to make war on each other, ... in the long term this same desire brings all men to lend each other a mutual support; and if it happens that an election accidentally divides two friends, the electoral system brings together in a permanent manner a multitude of citizens who would have always remained strangers to one another. Freedom creates particular hatreds, but despotism gives birth to general indifference."
It remains to be seen how much contemporary liberal and conservative activists will engage the American people, but, as the 2004 and 2006 elections suggest, nationalized parties, for better and worse, have begun to penetrate society. Republicans and Democrats, in fact, developed sophisticated, effective methods of mobilization in the past two elections that contributed to a significant increase in voter interest and turnout.
Both parties, for example, have used the Internet and party activists to recruit volunteers ("neighbors") who personally contact "lazy partisans," those who are likely to support all their parties' candidates and issues, but are infrequent voters and unlikely to participate in elections without the direct appeal of a campaign worker. That mobilization strategy has been abetted by sophisticated national databases of voters, including their voting histories and consumer information that the parties use to predict political leanings and motivating issues. Some experts speculate that the Republican Party, which has constructed an especially effective national political machine, has expanded its base by exploiting an emerging religious dimension of conflict and such issues as gay marriage. But considerable evidence points to national security as the most critical factor in both 2004 and 2006.
In fact, Bush's aggressive foreign policy cultivated support beyond the Republican base. During his first term, Bush's response to 9/11 contributed to across-the-board Republican gains in partisan identification, except among African-Americansespecially among important Democratic constituencies such as white Catholics and Hispanics. In turn, popular disaffection with the Iraq war, which led to a dramatic decline in support for Bush among independents and moderate Republicans, re-energized Democrats and enabled them to capture the House and Senate in the 2006 elections.
The prospect of a full-blown partisan debate over foreign policy is not eagerly anticipated by most Americans; indeed, post-election surveys showed that a large majority of the public hoped the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report would provide a pragmatic resolution to the Iraq war. The lukewarm, even belligerent, reception with which Democrats and Republicans greeted the report makes it unlikely that the public's hope on this score will be realized. Nor is a full-throated partisan debate over foreign policy eagerly anticipated by many commentators. "Sharpened debate is arguably helpful with respect to domestic issues," James Q. Wilson has acknowledged, "but not for the management of important foreign and military matters. ... Denmark or Luxembourg can afford to exhibit domestic anguish and uncertainty over military policy; the United States cannot. A divided America encourages our enemies, disheartens our allies, and saps our resolve — potentially to fatal effect."
The remarkable influence that foreign policy had not just on the 2004 presidential campaign but also on the 2006 off-year elections reveals that, above all, Schlesinger's vital center has not held with respect to America's place in the world. A December 2006 Washington Post-ABC survey showed that Republicans, Democrats, and independents were all far less likely to say that the United States was winning the war in Iraq than they had been a year earlier. But the partisan divide remains very wide: More than two times as many Republicans as Democrats answering that survey thought the United States was succeeding in Iraq70 percent to 30 percent. Heated controversy over immigration policy might be resolved by a brokered compromise between the White House and the Democratic Congress on border security and immigrant rights. But the partisan dispute over Iraq cannot be managed ex cathedra; like previous conflicts in foreign affairs that have divided the country, nation building in Iraq and, more broadly, the viability of the Bush doctrine can be resolved only through public debate.
Significantly, partisan debate about America's role in the world divided the founders, too. During the 1790s, in response to President George Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality in the war between France and Great Britain, James Madison decried Alexander Hamilton's claim that foreign policy was naturally the province of executive power and thus should be removed from the normal irrationalities of democratic politics. In the final analysis, Madison believed that democracy, even a refined and enlarged constitutional republic, required public debate and judgment that could only take place in the legislature and other public forums. The tasks of foreign policy — to declare war, to conclude peace, and to form alliances — were among "the highest acts of sovereignty"; to relegate such decisions to executive decree was to destroy the meaning of self-government.
The unprecedented insulation of world politics from partisan disputation during the cold-war era, therefore, should not lead us to view the current conflicts that have been aroused by 9/11 and its aftermath as incompatible with constitutional forms or America's responsibilities abroad. Rather, we should have the courage to recognize that such disputes have long been central to democracy in America, to the continuing contestation for the soul of the Constitution. Appealing to a mythic "vital center" will not diminish partisan rancor generated by the Iraq war and other conflicts that now divide the nation. And seeking to diffuse them risks embracing the alluring false hope that politics can be reduced to administration.
Sidney M. Milkis is chairman of the department of politics at the University of Virginia. His books include The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, edited with Jerome M. Mileur (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 26, Page B6