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Partisan Death Jam: How the Two Parties Are Destroying Our Political System

The new book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" explores the adversarial, winner-take-all climate we find ourselves in today that makes governing near impossible.

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How is partisan confrontation more serious today than it has been since you began studying American politics? 

It’s the worst we’ve seen in our 40 years of observing up-close Congress and the presidency and the American political system more broadly. We’ve gone through very difficult periods in our politics: polarized times in the post-Reconstruction period; turn of the 2oth century; we’ve, of course, just had exceptionally traumatic times before the Civil War; and difficulties in the early 1800s as well. So we make no claim that this is the worst ever, but if we’re comparing ourselves now to the pre-Civil War period, that’s not such good news, is it? What we can say is that the parties are more polarized than they have been in over a century. We can say that the Republican Party is more conservative than it’s been in over a century. We can get that evidence from looking at behavior within the Congress and patterns of voting, but we can also see how, in many respects, that public aligns with those polarized parties.

Some people make an argument, which we believe is more myth than reality, that the public is overwhelmingly moderate, centrist, pragmatic, independent, and it’s only the elite, the partisan elite, that engage in their own wars and cause the problems – that they don’t properly represent the sentiments of voters. We think that’s wrong, that the public – at least, the public active enough to vote – and in those who do more than voting particularly, are very much a piece of this now. We’ve kind of sorted ourselves into two warring parties. We’ve done it by a choice of neighborhoods in which to reside, on the base of our own ideological dispositions. A whole host of factors have led us into areas of people with like-minded values and beliefs and preferences, and that actually encourages the developments in Washington and, frankly, in state legislatures around the country that many people bemoan. So that’s part of it, why we think it’s exceptionally bad now.

Another part is that we’re facing the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, and yet our political system is set up in a way in which it’s very hard for an opposition party to be open to participating in any solutions to that because that would legitimize the party in power, which would keep them from getting there. And so they are engaged now in an ever more permanent campaign to obstruct, defeat, discredit, repeal anything that is done by – usually defined as – the president’s party. And we’ve now seen a willingness to engage in hostage-taking and a game of dangerous threats,  which lead to the downgrading of American currency.

You explicitly dispel the media myth that both sides are equally guilty of partisan misbehavior. What’s different about the current Republican Party?

It’s a very important piece of the argument that we’re making. I’ve already indicated to you that in ideological terms, as best as we can measure, the Republican Party is the most conservative it’s been in over a century. But I think just as importantly, it’s become a party that believes it’s essential to stick to your principles and not engage in any kind of collaboration with – negotiating or compromise with – the enemy, which is defined as the other party. That’s unusual. And then you put that together with simply no respect for facts, for evidence, for science, and add to that the willingness to simply reject the legitimacy of the other side. It’s as if we were replaying the election of 1800 and the party that eventually won wouldn’t take office because they were deemed illegitimate or vice versa. The peaceful transfer of power, the respect for the office of the presidency, the willingness to say, “We have our differences, it’s important to discuss those but in the end we’re all Americans,” and so on, that’s rejected by a whole lot of Republicans right now.

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