The partisan imperative: fighting for the love of an agenda

Sanitation workers marching in Atlanta's MLK Day parade, January 20, 2014 (PBG)
Sanitation workers marching in Atlanta’s MLK Day parade, January 20, 2014 (PBG)

Two days after most of the country marched and served their neighbors in celebration of the legacy of equality and civil rights preached by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., thousands gathered in Washington, DC, to protest the forty-first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s pro-choice, Roe v. Wade decision.

Both events sprung from a time in this country when people came together, showing solidarity and common purpose, in order to affect change. Dr. King’s legacy was as “a drum major for peace,” who worked for the advancement of all segments of society. Roe v. Wade was the culmination of a struggle for women, who won the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. But neither outcome sat well with the movement that spawned those who marched against choice, Wednesday. Their demonstration showed that, for the culture warriors of the Right, the fight against even decades-old, settled law is never over.

Conservative culture warriors never stay buried. They do go underground, however, and like a dormant seed, they wait until conditions are right for their reemergence. Fertilized by the rotting carcasses of shamed John Birchers, nourished by the spiteful rhetoric of the Tea Party and their 1% puppet masters, they awoke to find themselves in a Grand Old Garden Party. They celebrated with and were lauded by leading Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and former presidential candidate, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA).

Not that long ago, though, at the time the high court sent down its historic abortion decision, the Republicans who are now their benefactors looked at the beliefs of the hard right as an anathema to party unity, wrought with political poison. Pat Nixon, who was first lady when the decision came down, was pro-choice. Betty Ford was also pro-choice, and she came out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. And even the arch-conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), who ran for president in 1964, told the Senate, in 1981, “I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D.’ Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?”

The Bipartisan Flat Line

According to some scholars, that was during a very rare era in American politics, when bipartisanship was at its peak. Writing in the Washington Post earlier this month, political scientists David W. Brady, of the Hoover Institution, and Hahrie Han, from Wellesley College, point out that, for most of our history, there is little to no bipartisanship between the parties in Congress. They reached that conclusion by counting the number of lawmakers who are ideologically opposite the vast majority of their own party, and who are even closer to the other party’s ideology than 10% of that party’s contrarians.

In other words, they looked for a time when the most conservative Democrats in Congress “overlapped,” or were more conservative than, 10% of the most liberal Republicans. What they found validates the feelings of a lot of people growing up in 1960s and 1970s, that people actually worked together, then, to get things done.

According to Brady and Han’s data, the politicians who came up in post New Deal, post war America have the highest amount of aisle crossing cooperation in our history. Before that, and since, bipartisanship has been “a flat line.”

They write:

“In the post-WWII period, the number of legislators from each party in the overlap region spiked upwards and persisted until the early 1970s, when the numbers began to decline…

“By the 1980s, however, we are back to a flat line. There are no Democrats or Republicans in the overlap region…

“Taking this view, we realize that it is the immediate post-WWII era that is really unusual.”

Why did the lawmakers of that era act in that “unusual” way? Perhaps the camaraderie of the foxhole that the Greatest Generation shared, and the pitching in on the home front, allowed for the rare occurrence, where cooperation and unity of purpose were essential tools for survival.

So partisanship, then, is our political norm, and it just falls short of the expectations of Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, who may not know the times they long for were the exception in our country’s history, and not the rule. That means it’s just by relative comparison that we call it “hyper-partisanship,” so maybe we should just relax and lose the hyperbole. It’s just partisanship.

If that’s the case, that our country flat-lines bipartisanship as a matter of course, why not be fearless about promoting our core beliefs? The two major political parties in the United States certainly need the extremists in their relative bases, but what happens when once extreme positions go mainstream? Will the pols follow?

A More Liberal America

Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal thinks they will. “America is becoming more liberal,” exclaims an op-ed he penned in the Washington Post, this month. In it, Rosenthal goes through a laundry list of causes in which, he points out, polls demonstrate that “evolving” national sentiment favors the positions of the left. From marriage equality to immigration to pot to climate change, even income inequality, he looks at the numbers and concludes “the United States is steadily becoming more progressive.”

And, Rosenthal says, liberals need to keep pushing their agenda. “Progressives have an opportunity,” he wrote, “not only to come into the mainstream but also to lead — and shape public opinion.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) agrees. “We’re going to have four or five issues that we choose and they must be examples where government is clearly needed to do good,” he told a group at the Center for American Progress, Thursday, reflecting on the tactics Senate Democrats plan for 2014. Arguing that his party needs to stay on message, Schumer went on to tell the liberal audience “[T]he prominence in the issues of government’s ability to restore and build the middle class, provides us with a golden opportunity to expose what has always been a fault line in the tea party. The obsessive anti-government philosophy of tea party elites does not meet the actual needs of tea party membership.” In other words, the Democrats are going to say that government has helped, and can continue to help, everyone, even the tea party rank and file.

Yes, we are all individuals. Yes, we are all different.

Despite Schumer’s assertions, some Democrats running for office in red states seem to be gun shy, as far as promoting an aggressive liberal policy. Republicans, though, have no qualms about voicing their own agenda. Maybe that’s because the GOP hardliners think everyone is in the echo chamber with them, while liberals believe no one can ever completely agree with their unique opinion, even others with a similar social philosophy. That’s what science says.

According to a recent study by researchers at New York University, and reported in Scientific American (and re-posted on, “Conservatives overestimated how similar their preferences were to those of other conservatives, while liberals underestimated how similar their preferences were to those of other liberals.”

The authors liken the “false uniqueness” liberals feel to this clever scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Conservatives may believe that they can easily agree with each other, the study concludes, but, “It remains to be seen whether the conservative false consensus effect can lead to any real consensus in the GOP.”

Just ask Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), who quipped with Jay Leno, the other night, “I like to describe my job as trying to get 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to pass a bill. It’s hard to do.”

Boehner’s frustration with his caucus boiled over, last month, when he told the press he couldn’t believe it when one of the principle players in the GOP government shutdown, last fall, went on television and said, “We didn’t expect it to work, anyway.” That caused Boehner to give the press a stridently plaintive, “Are you kidding me?”

But the extremists don’t kid. They expect fidelity to the conservative cause, even though, as the NYU study says, that means different things to different people, and the definition of “conservative” seems to change over time.

“Republicans are being driven to identify in all ways with their tribe,” economist Paul Krugman wrote in a New York Times op-ed, at the beginning of the year, “and the tribal belief system is dominated by anti-science fundamentalists. For some time now it has been impossible to be a good Republicans while believing in the reality of climate change; now it’s impossible to be a good Republican while believing in evolution.

“And of course,” he continued, “the same thing is happening in economics. As recently as 2004, the Economic Report of the President of a Republican administration could espouse a strongly Keynesian view, declaring the virtues of ‘aggressive monetary policy’ to fight recessions, and making the case for discretionary fiscal policy too.” Using government money to stimulate the economy, you see, sounds too much like what a Democrat would do, so now, of course, only supply-siders are welcome to the tribe.

The Imperative

The tribal, cultural divide is being played out, early in this midterm election year, over the issue that brought all those conservatives to D.C., Wednesday: abortion, and its sister issue, birth control.

In a preview of the event, the New York Times seemed surprised that the issue was even in play, this year:

“Abortion is becoming an unexpectedly animating issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Republicans, through state ballot initiatives and legislation in Congress, are using it to stoke enthusiasm among core supporters. Democrats, mindful of how potent the subject has been in recent campaigns like last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, are looking to rally female voters by portraying their conservative opponents as callous on women’s issues.”

So the GOP is going back to the 2004 playbook, when it used anti-gay marriage ballot measures to get their base to the polls. Since consensus on that issue has shifted, they’ve turned to abortion and birth control, which, the conventional wisdom goes, they’re trying to turn into an economic issue, rather than a cultural one.

But when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got up in front of the National Republican Committee meeting, Thursday, it was the cultural side of the teeter-totter he dropped a load on. “The Democrats,” he said, “want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

In an excellent article in the Atlantic, Molly Ball points out that Democrats are missing the bigger picture, if all they do is gleefully point to the shiny object of another misstep by Republicans in their efforts to reach women. It may seem like easy pickings, when the RNC’s own 2012 postmortem, the Growth and Opportunity Project, advised a “need to use language that addresses concerns that are on women’s minds in order to let them know we are fighting for them.” Yet, Ball writes:

“The RNC has been raising money at a record clip, enabling Chairman Reince Priebus to fulfill his goal of staffing an unprecedented national political operation. There are more than 160 field staffers living and organizing in 26 states, and they’ll be in all 50 by the end of the year.”

Add in outreach to Hispanics and young people in several states, and investment in digital resources, and it becomes apparent that the GOP is not about to change its stripes, just how it shows its colors to communities it is trying to reach. Ball also points out, there are observers who are predicting a better than 60% chance of the GOP winning in 2016. Her advice is cautionary:

“Democrats roll their eyes at these efforts—see, they say, Republicans think they can dress up the same old ideas with fancy Facebook doodads and slick new slogans, but they’re not fundamentally changing what it is they’re offering in policy and philosophical terms. But to Republicans, the idea that they would change what they stand for was always oversold. The Growth and Opportunity Project’s only policy recommendation was immigration reform—which, granted, hasn’t happened, blocked by House Republicans, though it still could get done this year. The bulk of the report, though, focused on changing the party’s image and effectiveness through rhetoric and tactics.”

They’re still conservative, still tribal. “That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Mississippi’s Henry Barbour, who was part of the group involved in the 2102 postmortem, told Ball. “We said we need to articulate conservative principles in a way that’s inclusive and loving as opposed to shrill and strident. That doesn’t sell.”

There’s a danger of complacency for Democrats who stand on the sidelines like the hare, pointing, laughing and shaking their heads, while the Republicans plod past the finish line and take the Senate. Conservatives are talking up their brand, not changing it, and trying to reach more people with it.

Schumer’s call of “bringing back a renewed faith in government’s ability to do good,” is a worthy start at demonstrating the liberal brand sells, too. The best way to do that is to harken back to a time of solidarity and commitment to common purpose for the common good. We don’t need bipartisanship in Congress to make that happen. We need Americans.

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