It’s become a standard feature of big national holidays: pious chest-thumping and finger-pointing about how Americans used to truly represent a United States but have now let politicians with their petty partisan squabbles drive us apart, when a little old-fashioned good will and elbow grease would fix everything. I heard a species of this meme over the Memorial Day weekend from CBS correspondent Scott Pelley:
“Today, liberals and conservatives barricade themselves in digital citadels where some media, with calculated bias, assure their viewers that what they already believe is correct. If we wall ourselves in castles of confirming information, I fear a new Cold War. This time, a cold civil war.
“Given this danger, why do both parties promote almost nothing but divisive scandals? Because it is so much easier than health insurance or immigration reform. Taking on actual challenges would require work, and listening, and thought, and union.”
Aside from the implication that, say, the crimes and misdemeanors revealed in the Mueller report are simply “divisive scandals,” what is most objectionable about Pelley’s complaint and so many others like it is the suggestion that partisan differences are superficial, or even artificial. Yes, of course, there’s an element of self-interested gamesmanship in partisan competition, particularly in a period when neither party can secure a reliable grip on the White House, Congress, or public opinion. But you can make a strong case that today’s partisan disagreements are rooted in basic differences involving not just facts or policy positions but very basic principles and values.
Look at the key issue in the 2018 midterms, health-care policy. Even if they disagree on how to achieve universal health coverage, most Democrats agree it’s essential and a basic human right. Republicans almost never call health care a “right,” and instead tend to regard it as a scarce resource whose price should be regulated by markets and quantity should be limited by clean and responsible living. This is not a matter of “I say tomato and you say to-mah-to,” by any means.
Consider another ineluctable partisan fight concerning firearms regulation. To most Democrats, the “right to bear arms” has little or nothing to do with fanatics and other fury-driven testosterone addicts stockpiling automatic weapons and evading minimal background checks by frequenting gun shows. To nearly all Republicans now, the Second Amendment is the single most essential element of the Bill of Rights, the guarantor not only against violation of hearth and home but against tyrannical government. Maybe all partisans don’t share the views of those on the left who would ban all private gun ownership or those on the right who threaten to use their shooting irons to kill cops or soldiers who try to enforce laws they don’t like. But there’s really not much middle ground, and that’s not because partisans are inventing phony conflicts.
Look at how the two parties think about voting rights, which was once, in living memory, a truly bipartisan cause. Democrats almost invariably think of the right to vote as fundamental to democracy and resist any measures that tend to suppress the most abundant levels of participation in elections. To an ever-increasing extent, Republicans think of making voting easy as an invitation to fraud and the plundering of the public treasury by ignorant plebes who will “vote themselves benefits” in league with corrupt elites. That’s a gulf in perception that no compromise can bridge.
Check out one more issue on which the parties have become polarized: campaign-finance reform. For most Democrats, this is a common-sense matter of minimizing the strength of wealthy special interests and reducing official corruption; the whole chain of Supreme Court decisions leading up to Citizens United is considered an abomination. Most Republicans agree with the SCOTUS premise that “money is speech,” and fear campaign-finance regulation as a big step down the road to publicly financed and eventually government-controlled elections. In this case the two parties’ points of view are very nearly inverted, with the donkey’s freedom from special interests equaling the elephant’s enslavement. Can a room full of wheeling and dealing overcome that rift? I don’t think so.
Recognizing that partisanship is based on legitimate differences of opinion has huge implications for how one understands government dysfunction and the way to “fix” it, as Paul Waldman observed over the weekend:
“The reality is that we’re in an era when, unless there’s unified government, not much is going to get done, at least in terms of legislation. That’s not because there’s something wrong with Washington; it’s because the two parties have fundamentally different ideas about what we ought to do.
“Which means that, as they try to win back the White House and plan what to do with it if they succeed, Democrats don’t need to devise a strategy to persuade Republicans to join with them in a new era of bipartisan governing. They need a strategy to win full control of Congress, then a strategy to keep their members together to pass their agenda. If they manage that, nobody will complain that Washington can’t get anything done.”
This ought to be fairly obvious, but unfortunately, the idea that partisanship is somehow a free-floating demonic force rather than a reflection of deeply held values has infected political discourse even more than partisanship itself, as Waldman also notes:
“Unfortunately, politicians do a great deal to mislead voters about how politics works. Every election, candidates for the House and Senate tell voters that the problem is this thing called Washington, whose dysfunctions can be cured with the proper kick in the keister. And I, the candidate says, am just the person to do it, to change Washington into what it ought to be. Why? Not because I have policy expertise or relevant experience; those things don’t matter. No, it’s because I have common sense, and I know how to get things done.”
And so when nothing changes or partisan “dysfunction” gets even worse, voters become even more disillusioned with “Washington,” and listen to the pied pipers of rhetorical enchantment who pretend getting things done is easy for the stout-hearted and the open-minded. It’s not.