It is widely assumed that partisanship, particularly of the rabid variety, is detrimental to the political process and harms our democracy. I believe this is naive and not borne out by the evidence. Partisanship is responsible for the “dysfunction of Washington,” to use the current popular pejorative, and polls have recorded as much as 80 percent of the electorate dissatisfied with Congress. This figure is not easily obtained.
According a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, the partisan gap has almost doubled since George W. Bush’s presidency through Barak Obama’s. America is becoming more partisan, if that is possible. Incumbent senators and congressmen have worked extremely hard for this and have forged a difficult alliance to reach this goal. This alliance is often overlooked by ideologues, but obviously, though appearing tacit, is the stabilizing influence in our political process.
The Republican controlled House of Representatives has voted 33 times to repeal the law known as Obamacare, unsuccessfully. They apparently were not serious; there’s some other motive. The Democrat president, Barak Obama, bailed out Wall Street with $700 billion of taxpayer money, ignored the plight of everyday citizens whose homes were (and still are) being repossessed, and did not prosecute any of the banks responsible for the largest economic collapse since the Depression, just to show he’s a more ruthless capitalist than his opponents.
These are egregious examples of extreme political partisanship. They give the absolute appearance that there’s a great battle going on in Washington between warring titans who are fighting for their constituents. This is true, but what needs to be recognized is that the apparent outcome in legislating is always the same: a blustery ho-hum; business as usual.
This looks unintended. But it is the master-stroke of the unspoken alliance between liberals and conservatives. Congressional and Senate incumbents are overwhelmingly re-elected (over 90 percent). They are returned to pick up the same issues and fight the same fights over and again; though those fights are stalemated by an equal but opposite incumbent force. This is the law of legislative stasis: the force of stubbornness on one side must equal the weight of numbers on the other to keep the scale balanced, lest it tip one way or the other into action.
Extreme partisanship assures no violent swing left, or right; compromise intolerable; consensus unthinkable. The war between both sides is belligerent and has serious casualties (Harry Reid has become so zombified he’s incapable of facial expressions). Yet it is all to reach the rare state of democratic equilibrium: the status quo. And, brilliantly, absolutely no one in the public can repudiate that there hasn’t been an effort to change the status quo.
To reinforce this process the national media provides the left and right versions of an issue in an effort to have a “balanced” discussion no matter how fake each partisan side is. Stalemate is the only possible outcome, though it’s exciting to hear a good argument.
We’ve recently had the traumatic experience as a nation of the National Football League using replacement referees because the regular ones went on strike, not agreeing with the offered contract. The owners thought this a good idea until fans revolted against the replacement refs’ bad calls. Because of this pressure the team owners miraculously came up with an agreement pronto. Apparently, agreement can be reached from two opposing sides when the parties risk being run down and tackled by an angry Green Bay Packer team. It’s unlikely that the Packers would work for us and form a line in front of the next session of Congress, but the NFL team owners and referees showed agreement is possible even when it comes to implacable polarized opposites: management and labor.
Each of the two political parties tries desperately to include constituents with conflicting opinions and loyalties to hold the system together. The Republican Party recently silenced Ron Paul’s campaign but scooped up his followers; just as the Democratic Party did with Ralph Nader.
But this becomes difficult when working class Conservatives can’t relate to Fortune 500 CEOs; or inner-city African Americans can’t relate to Ivy League-educated liberals. This requires some acrobatics from the parties and they resort to ratcheting up the fighting between themselves and the barbs fly and talking heads cry out the end of the world as we know it; then they offer cover to protect these disparate constituents under their wing. The worst thing that could happen is for these factions to splinter off and form their own parties.
American style democracy would be compromised and the 35 percent of eligible voters who opt out every election just might join the voting process. This would be a travesty for incumbents and the two parties alike (neither of which received anything but apathy from that 35 percent). The status quo would be threatened. Compromise between not so polarized parties might be attainable. Action might actually be conceivable. Conservatives and liberals may realize they have something in common with these other parties and defect. Incumbents may lose their next election.
Our extremely partisan, modern American two-party system works perfectly as it is: not necessarily for you or me, but for the two parties. The dysfunction of Washington is its function.