A prescription for stagnation and disaster: Here's why Democrats must resist the 'bipartisan' trap

Democrats always have to compromise, no matter how large an electoral victory they may win.

With Democrats about to assume control of the House of Representatives, we're being treated to another round of wide-ranging calls for bipartisanship, both overtly and more insidiously in sub-rosa form. Democrats are supposed to act in a bipartisan manner -- but without expecting either Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell to accept normal House oversight, much less to sit down with them and pass any serious bipartisan legislation. 

So, the real message to Democrats is that they must not articulate a clear, principled policy position of their own — even for the purpose of saving civilization as we know it — because that would only further "polarization" and "tribalization," as argued in the deeply flawed “Hidden Tribes” report I wrote about recently. The default assumption here is an article of faith among the D.C. punditocracy: Serious policymaking progress requires bipartisan consensus. In practice, this means Democrats always have to compromise, no matter how large an electoral victory they may win.  

This assumption wildly misrepresents American history. The abolition of slavery wasn’t the product of bipartisan consensus, nor was anything else the Civil War-era Republicans did that fundamentally reshaped America: building the transcontinental railroad, establishing land grant colleges, imposing an income tax, creating fiat money. The same could be said of FDR’s New Deal, as well as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Medicare, for example, passed with significant GOP support — mostly gained late in the process — but the final roll call vote showed it passing easily based on Democratic votes alone, with Republicans narrowly supporting it in the House, and opposing it in the Senate.

There are many possible reasons why this assumption is so strong, but one of them surely is because we’re living in the midst of a prolonged historical anomaly, which today’s pundits can no more recognize than a fish can recognize water. For the last 50 years, one-party trifectas — controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress — have been relatively infrequent, and never sustained for long: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were the only presidents to enjoy more than two years with their parties controlling Congress. Power-sharing has been the rule, and unified government the fleeting exception.

But that’s not how most of American history looks. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

From the emergence of the two-party system in 1796 through 1968, there were 63 trifectas versus 25 sessions of divided government. Unified control was more than twice as common as divided government. Since 1968, it’s the reverse: Trifectas for only seven full sessions, and divided control for 19, barely more than one in three. 

What's more, these trifectas haven’t just appeared randomly, they’ve come in sizable coherent clumps. Historians and political scientists have divided American history into at least five distinct (and one more debated) party systems, separated by defining "realignment" elections, with one party dominant and the other subdominant. In the first seven sessions after such elections, there have been 33 dominant party trifectas, one subdominant party trifecta, and one session with divided government.

These realignment elections — those of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896 and 1932 — are the most consequential elections of American history, broadly conceived, largely because they established long periods of one-party dominance. Those periods have defined the basic shape of American political history, with the periods between them, when the party systems weakened, usually producing less in the way of lasting change.

But even in those periods of systematic weakening, bipartisan governance didn’t emerge. More commonly, we see what might be called “failed realignments,” when the subdominant party temporarily gains a foothold — Democrats with Grover Cleveland in 1892 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Whigs with William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (after Harrison's death) in 1840, Republicans with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 — only to lose it again. Taking the last seven congressional sessions of all five party systems through 1968, well more than half were trifectas — 21 out of 35 — all but one of them reflecting control by the dominant party.  

American history since 1968 looks nothing like that, of course: Divided government has been the rule. That wouldn't be a problem if America’s political system were working. But it’s not. It’s profoundly dysfunctional, and Donald Trump is just the most extreme expression of that dysfunction. A good case could be made that the past 50 years should be seen as an historical anomaly. We are still basically cruising on the policy framework that was established in the New Deal and fleshed out in the Great Society. The threat of climate change is perhaps the clearest signal that that framework is simply insufficient for the challenges facing us ahead. 

We need a new party system to create that framework. There is simply no historical precedent for it to come from anywhere else — certainly not from a continuation of the divided-government norm of the past 50 years. Divided government can provide solutions to problems within the framework of the existing party system, at least sometimes. But it cannot provide solutions to problems larger than that — problems that the party system itself may help create, accommodate or sustain.

Three books that I’ve written about previously can help us make sense of our current predicament. The first is “Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie,” by Augustus B. Cochran III, which describes our current dealigned party system in terms of a functional similarity to the one-party politics of the pre-civil rights South. This helps us understand how the dynamics of today's political framework differs profoundly from most of American history.  The second is “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats,” by Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins, which explains how the two parties are fundamentally different, and helps clarify how and why politics evolved into this dealigned state. The third is “Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History” by Peter Turchin, which provides a historical model for understanding the disintegrative trends affecting America during this period as a product of much more general historic forces. 

As I explained here in 2016:

Cochran argued that the same sorts of maladies which afflicted the South circa 1950, diagnosed in V.O. Key's classic, "Southern Politics in State and Nation," had come to afflict the nation as a whole. The specific structures might differ — lungs vs. gills — but the functions, or dysfunctions were strikingly similar, he argued, with political power held tight by wealthy elites while the majority of voters were confused, disengaged, or entirely absent, with politics serving them primarily as entertainment. In the 1950s-era South, its one party system was functionally a no-party system, operating somewhat differently from state to state. In the country at large, the same result later came from a dealignment of politics — the White House controlled by one party, Congress by another — a frequent, but not dominant pattern in American politics until 1968, after which it's become the normal state of affairs. The intensified role of money and media served to accelerate the breakdown of party bonds and further entrepreneurial politics, in which individual politicians thrive by branding themselves, regardless of how party allies may fare. 

 

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were exemplary successes within that framework, even as they brought about devastating losses of party power in the midterms that followed their first presidential elections. Both men are still regarded as exceptional politicians, but prior to 1968, they almost certainly would have been judged much more critically for the profound down-ballot damage done to the party, not just in Congress but in scores of state legislatures as well. 

One further parallel Cochran drew: Just as Southern politics described by Key was inadequate to the task of developing the South as an industrial democracy, transitioning from its agricultural foundations, so was its (dys-)functional twin crippling America's ability circa 2000 to transition to a successful post-industrial democracy, with policies and institutions mediating global market forces to serve the common good.

In “Asymmetric Politics,” Grossmann and Hopkins explain something fundamental about the dissimilar nature of the two parties, which predates this historically atypical era, but has profoundly influenced how its politics has evolved: Historical forces have pushed the expansion of government, with overwhelming public support, to meet a widening range of socially recognized needs (more organized “group interests”), as ideological conservatives react with ever-increasing alarm. Democrats can win elections by focusing on specific problems and proposals to meet them, while Republicans can win elections via broad-based ideological complaints about big government, “out of control spending,” etc. There is majority support for each of these perspectives, even though they directly contradict one another. 

This contradiction was first noted in the 1967 book, “The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion,” which called it “almost schizoid.” At the time, 23 percent of Americans held both these contradictory views, while in the five Southern states that Barry Goldwater won, the figure was twice that — 46 percent, almost half the population — a significant hint of the connection Cochrane drew between the one-party South, which was still very strong in these states, and the broader disconnect of dealigned national politics that was just about to come.

There’s another thing that Grossmann and Hopkins didn’t focus on: Partisan asymmetry makes “bipartisan solutions” particularly difficult. If both major parties were primarily focused on problem-solving — as the pretense of “bipartisan” rhetoric pretends — then coming up with compromise deals wouldn’t be so difficult. But the GOP’s ideological focus is mostly concerned with purity and fidelity rather than solving the problems at hand, which creates major obstacles to getting things done. Those obstacles only grow bigger as the meaning of Republican ideology — what it takes to be a “true conservative” — continues to drift rightward drift: The Heritage Foundation's health care plan of 1989 becomes the “socialized medicine” of 2010. 

While most observers view Trump as atypical, Grossmann argued otherwise in a New York Times op-ed early this year  (“Missing Conservatism? Just Wait for a Democratic President”), claiming that the apparent lack of conservative legislative victories under Trump was merely part of a repeating cycle:

The typical conservative cycle runs from backlash to embrace to disappointment — and we are right on schedule….

Each conservative cycle begins with a backlash against liberal acceleration. Just as in 2010, the midterm elections of 1966, 1978 and 1994 brought Republican surges reacting to the policies of new Democratic presidents. Each insurgency was more conservative than the previous version, but they lacked realistic and popular proposals to rein in government or reverse social change; they focused mostly on stopping Democratic action.

Grossmann doesn’t say it, but I will: The increasing conservatism of each repetition has put Republicans further and further out of touch with reality. Trump emerged in part because earlier conservative efforts had failed and no realistic alternative made sense any longer. His brand of conservatism is almost entirely fanciful, based on gaslighting, conspiracy theory and absurdist claims, because that’s all that conservatives have left at this point. (An analogous argument has been made by Salon's Amanda Marcotte in her book "Troll Nation.")

Grossmann did not focus on the Democratic side of the dynamic, but we can add something similar there as well: The "Democratic action" to which conservatives respond has itself generally grown conservative over time, reflecting a combination of donor influence, elite opinion and mass disaffection in response — all of which reflect the increasing “Dixiefication” that Cochran writes about. 

Neither Jimmy Carter, before Reagan’s election, nor Bill Clinton or Barack Obama afterwards, offered a vigorous defense of government as a whole. Instead, they defensively sought to accommodate conservative criticism, hoping to win bipartisan support by doing so, only to be attacked more savagely as a result. What’s more, all three operated as individual political entrepreneurs, in a style Cochran highlights as a key part of the dynamic seen first in the one-party South. Their efforts, like those of conservatives, have also become increasingly divorced from reality — promises of opportunity set against the reality of ever-widening economic inequality are a prime example of this disconnect.

Grossmann notes: "The [conservative] cycle is born of the infeasibility of conservative goals, especially the American right’s attempt to reverse the growth of the welfare and administrative state (which even the world’s most right-wing parties accept) and its tendency to start unwinnable culture wars against inevitable change (a typical conservative foible).” But Cochran helps us see the infeasibility of neoliberal Democratic goals as well: Democrats will never get the Republican support they so desperately yearn for (as I wrote here two weeks ago), and will never solve the larger problems that require a new framework, such as climate change and the Green New Deal, as I discussed here last week.  

Finally, “Ages of Discord” tells us that the underlying sources of strife are largely ignored — or at best poorly grasped — by both parties, as well as pundits: mass immiseration due to labor oversupply, elite overproduction (and increasingly hostile competition) spurred by ever-larger shares of the national income going to elites, and the fiscal crisis of the state, reflecting both elite tax avoidance and more widespread loss of faith, along with unwillingness to sacrifice for the national good. These core factors contribute to a “political instability index” that has been shown to predict state breakdown from ancient Rome and China to what we experience in the U.S. today. This is the core finding of "structural-demographic theory," which can be applied to all sorts of different political systems, not just the menu of advanced industrial democracies represented today in the G20 or the OECD. 

Although structural-demographic theory (SDT) offers no easy ways out, it does offer a coherent empirically-based explanation for the challenges we face. The same is true of climate change, of course, and the science behind climate change is far more widely known and understood than that behind SDT. It would be foolish to expect that just because we now have this knowledge in hand, we can readily apply it. But it can help guide us — reinforcing our moral sense that too much inequality is socially and politically toxic, for example, or clarifying the dangers of elite overproduction (meaning that too many educated, wealthy people are chasing too few opportunities or positions of power), or underscoring the importance of nurturing cooperative rather than competitive values.

This last point bears further scrutiny, because it might seem to go directly against my criticism of bipartisanship. It doesn't, and here’s why: Democrats already value cooperation. That’s one reason why they’re so easily drawn into fruitless attempts to cooperate with conservatives, like Charlie Brown with Lucy and the football. As Grossmann indicates, conservatives are doomed to frustration because they want something that simply doesn’t exist: a future based on an imaginary, idealized past. There is simply no way cooperation can deliver that to them. So we need to find something else, something actually attainable that could satisfy them. Then cooperation will make sense. 

If that sounds impossible, or overly abstract, maybe we should start with something small, something close at hand. Start with revitalizing local public life. There are some things progressives want that even majorities of conservatives support, as with the top tier of the Progressive Change Institute's Big Ideas poll in early 2015, which I wrote about in July of that year in discussing Bernie Sanders' popular appeal. 

The poll identified 16 ideas with 70 percent support or more, and don't depend on any sort of “bipartisan compromise” as defined inside the Beltway. These range from allowing the government to negotiate drug prices (at 79 percent approval) to universal pre-K (77 percent), an end to gerrymandering (73 percent), debt-free public college (71 percent), Medicare buy-in for everyone (71 percent), and the "Green New Deal," with its promise of millions of clean-energy jobs (70 percent). 

In fact, House Democrats already have an exemplary lead-off package of pro-democracy, anti-corruption measures bundled in their first legislative proposal, H.R. 1, with highlights like public financing of federal elections through a voluntary small donor-match, requiring that Super PACs and “dark money” groups make their donors public, requiring the president to disclose his or her tax returns, creating a new ethical code for the Supreme Court, restoring the Voting Rights Act, creating a national automatic voter registration system, ending partisan gerrymandering in federal elections and prohibiting voter-roll purging.

While Democrats are getting ready to roll out that broadly popular, nonpartisan, pro-democracy package, what are Republicans doing?  In several states where they suffered midterm defeats, they’re using lame-duck sessions to launch anti-democratic power grabs. In Wisconsin, there’s talk of Republican lawmakers rewriting state law in the lame-duck session to remove Gov.-elect Tony Evers, the Democrat who beat Scott Walker, from the redistricting process. 

In Michigan, where Democrats won the top three statewide offices — governor, attorney general and secretary of state — for the first time since 1990, the lame-duck GOP legislature is taking up legislation to dilute the power of all three offices. If they were all “good government” bills, as Republicans claim, then why wait until after the election to introduce them? In Arizona, the Republican head of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is talking about curbing the power of incoming County Recorder Adrian Fontes, the first Democrat to hold that office in 50 years.

What's the point of trying to find a bipartisan compromise between GOP power-grabs on one hand and Democrats’ good-government efforts on the other? What would such a “compromise” even look like? The idea is absurd on its face.

That list of popular legislative ideas from the Big Ideas poll serves as a powerful reminder that large majorities of Americans have long supported specific progressive policy ideas, at least as far back as the publication of “The Political Beliefs of Americans” more than 50 years ago. That book closed with a final section titled, "The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology," which included this prescription:

The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study.... There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

That restatement is exactly what Democrats should focus on now. It could form the foundation of a new party system prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century, at last making possible our transition to a successful post-industrial democracy whose policies and institutions mediate global market forces to serve the common good.

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Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.