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NYT: Extreme Politics

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/books/review/Brinkley-t.html November 11, 2007 Extreme Politics By ALAN BRINKLEY Few people would dispute that the politics
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 11, 2007
      November 11, 2007
      Extreme Politics

      Few people would dispute that the politics of Washington are as
      polarized today as they have been in decades. The question Ronald
      Brownstein poses in this provocative book is whether what he calls
      "extreme partisanship" is simply a result of the tactics of recent
      party leaders, or whether it is an enduring product of a systemic
      change in the structure and behavior of the political world.
      Brownstein, formerly the chief political correspondent for The Los
      Angeles Times and now the political director of the Atlantic Media
      Company, gives considerable credence to both explanations. But the
      most important part of "The Second Civil War" — and the most debatable
      — is his claim that the current political climate is the logical,
      perhaps even inevitable, result of a structural change that stretched
      over a generation.

      A half-century ago, Brownstein says, the two parties looked very
      different from how they appear today. The Democratic Party was a
      motley combination of the conservative white South; workers in the
      industrial North as well as African-Americans and other minorities;
      and cosmopolitan liberals in the major cities of the East and West
      Coasts. Republicans dominated the suburbs, the business world, the
      farm belt and traditional elites. But the constituencies of both
      parties were sufficiently diverse, both demographically and
      ideologically, to mute the differences between them. There were enough
      liberals in the Republican Party, and enough conservatives among the
      Democrats, to require continual negotiation and compromise and to
      permit either party to help shape policy and to be competitive in most
      elections. Brownstein calls this "the Age of Bargaining," and while he
      concedes that this era helped prevent bold decisions (like confronting
      racial discrimination), he clearly prefers it to the fractious world
      that followed.

      The turbulent politics of the 1960s and '70s introduced newly
      ideological perspectives to the two major parties and inaugurated what
      Brownstein calls "the great sorting out" — a movement of politicians
      and voters into two ideological camps, one dominated by an intensified
      conservatism and the other by an aggressive liberalism. By the end of
      the 1970s, he argues, the Republican Party was no longer a broad
      coalition but a party dominated by its most conservative voices; the
      Democratic Party had become a more consistently liberal force, and had
      similarly banished many of its dissenting voices. Some scholars and
      critics of American politics in the 1950s had called for exactly such
      a change, insisting that clear ideological differences would give
      voters a real choice and thus a greater role in the democratic
      process. But to Brownstein, the "sorting out" was a catastrophe that
      led directly to the meanspirited, take-no-prisoners partisanship of today.

      There is considerable truth in this story. But the transformation of
      American politics that he describes was the product of more extensive
      forces than he allows and has been, at least so far, less profound
      than he claims. Brownstein correctly cites the Democrats' embrace of
      the civil rights movement as a catalyst for partisan change — moving
      the white South solidly into the Republican Party and shifting it
      farther to the right, while pushing the Democrats farther to the left.
      But he offers few other explanations for "the great sorting out"
      beyond the preferences and behavior of party leaders. A more
      persuasive explanation would have to include other large social
      changes: the enormous shift of population into the Sun Belt over the
      last several decades; the new immigration and the dramatic increase it
      created in ethnic minorities within the electorate; the escalation of
      economic inequality, beginning in the 1970s, which raised the
      expectations of the wealthy and the anxiety of lower-middle-class and
      working-class people (an anxiety conservatives used to gain support
      for lowering taxes and attacking government); the end of the cold war
      and the emergence of a much less stable international system; and
      perhaps most of all, the movement of much of the political center out
      of the party system altogether and into the largest single category of
      voters — independents. Voters may not have changed their ideology very
      much. Most evidence suggests that a majority of Americans remain
      relatively moderate and pragmatic. But many have lost interest, and
      confidence, in the political system and the government, leaving the
      most fervent party loyalists with greatly increased influence on the
      choice of candidates and policies.

      Brownstein skillfully and convincingly recounts the process by which
      the conservative movement gained control of the Republican Party and
      its Congressional delegation. He is especially deft at identifying the
      institutional and procedural tools that the most conservative wing of
      the party used after 2000 both to vanquish Republican moderates and to
      limit the ability of the Democratic minority to participate
      meaningfully in the legislative process. He is less successful (and
      somewhat halfhearted) in making the case for a comparable ideological
      homogeneity among the Democrats, as becomes clear in the book's
      opening passage. Brownstein appropriately cites the former House
      Republican leader Tom DeLay's farewell speech in 2006 as a sign of his
      party's recent strategy. DeLay ridiculed those who complained about
      "bitter, divisive partisan rancor." Partisanship, he stated, "is not a
      symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health and its strength."

      But making the same argument about a similar dogmatism and zealotry
      among Democrats is a considerable stretch. To make this case,
      Brownstein cites not an elected official (let alone a Congressional
      leader), but the readers of the Daily Kos, a popular
      left-wing/libertarian Web site that promotes what Brownstein calls "a
      scorched-earth opposition to the G.O.P." According to him, "DeLay and
      the Democratic Internet activists ... each sought to reconfigure their
      political party to the same specifications — as a warrior party that
      would commit to opposing the other side with every conceivable means
      at its disposal." The Kos is a significant force, and some leading
      Democrats have attended its yearly conventions. But few party leaders
      share the most extreme views of Kos supporters, and even fewer embrace
      their "passionate partisanship." Many Democrats might wish that their
      party leaders would emulate the aggressively partisan style of the
      Republican right. But it would be hard to argue that they have come
      even remotely close to the ideological purity of their conservative
      counterparts. More often, they have seemed cowed and timorous in the
      face of Republican discipline, and have over time themselves moved
      increasingly rightward; their recapture of Congress has so far
      appeared to have emboldened them only modestly.

      There is no definitive answer to the question of whether the current
      level of polarization is the inevitable result of long-term systemic
      changes, or whether it is a transitory product of a particular
      political moment. But much of this so-called age of extreme
      partisanship has looked very much like Brownstein's "Age of
      Bargaining." Ronald Reagan, the great hero of the right and a much
      more effective spokesman for its views than President Bush, certainly
      oversaw a significant shift in the ideology and policy of the
      Republican Party. But through much of his presidency, both he and the
      Congressional Republicans displayed considerable pragmatism, engaged
      in negotiation with their opponents and accepted many compromises.
      Bill Clinton, bedeviled though he was by partisan fury, was a master
      of compromise and negotiation — and of co-opting and transforming the
      views of his adversaries. Only under George W. Bush — through a
      combination of his control of both houses of Congress, his own
      inflexibility and the post-9/11 climate — did extreme partisanship
      manage to dominate the agenda. Given the apparent failure of this
      project, it seems unlikely that a new president, whether Democrat or
      Republican, will be able to recreate the dispiriting political world
      of the last seven years.

      Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins professor of history and the provost
      at Columbia University.
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