The Return of Partisanship

During the Cold War, there was something of a consensus in American politics. We were fighting a life or death struggle, and because of that, a certain amount of cross-party cooperation was seen as valuable and even essential. Bipartisanship was held up as a superior moral value. What few recognized was how out of tune that era was with the historical structure of American politics. Americans love partisanship, and have for a very long time. Party allegiance is what–in many ways–makes the fractured system of checks and balances of the government work. The result throughout American history has been a viciously partisan system, with two competing parties that prized partisan loyalty above almost everything else. (For a good discussion of this, one might take a look at: “The American Political Nation, 1838-1893 (Stanford Studies in the New Political History)” (Joel H. Silbey) )

Post-Cold War, the United States has begun to return to that form of political system. Other factors, such as the increasing importance of soft money and get-out-the-vote operations have privileged the party institutions over the individual politicians and led to partisanship again becoming the dominant feature of American politics. The realignment of the Solid South to the Republicans has had an effect as well. The GOP recognized that first, and most effectively, and has constructed a political machine in the spirit of Tammany Hall or the Pendergast machine. Leading that machine has been a succession of nearly-indistinguishable leaders: Gingrich gave way to DeLay who gave way to Blount. Party loyalty is enforced partly through access to money, and partly through primary challenges. Pat Toomey’s run against Arlen Specter in the 2004 Pennsylvania GOP primary was a shot across the bow of a Senator who was showing (from the GOP perspective) worrying signs of moderation. It had a signal effect on Specter (the Chair of the Senate Judicial Committee) and played directly into the confirmation of both John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

The start of this came in the early 1990s, and gained real ground in the 1994 Congressional elections. Those elections are most often held up as the breaking of the 40-year Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, but they also swept aside an older generation of Republicans and replaced them with Congresspeople who believed in party loyalty above all. Since then, the GOP has effectively consolidated the South, sweeping aside most of the remaining Democratic politicians there, and created a party discipline that rivals that of the English Parliamentary system.

The Democrats have lagged behind, meanwhile. President Clinton’s two terms effectively obscured the need for increased party discipline, and the controversy over Al Gore’s loss in 2000 kept the Democrats focused on other things. The result was, despite a strong sense of motivation and expectation on the Democratic side, the 2002 midterm elections went heavily Republican (partly of course because of the aftereffects of 9/11). There was then recognition by a number of Democrats that the structure of the party had to be rebuilt in a way that resembled Republican efforts. The Presidential election of 2004 was a classic partisan election, in which Karl Rove ran a campaign based largely on getting 51% of the vote, despite having a relatively unpopular candidate and one who lost all three of the election debates. Senator Kerry’s campaign, on the other hand, was a much more “bipartisan” campaign in the sense of largely attempting to stay away from polarizing issues.

In the aftermath, perhaps the most critical sign of the new sense among Democrats of the need for a partisan structure was the election of Howard Dean to be chair of the Democratic National Committee. His “50 State” Strategy, which aims to build party presences and get out the vote efforts in all 50 states, echoes the Republican strategy of the 1990s and the late 19th century strategy of both political parties. This has not been uncontroversial, as Democratic leaders have complained that the effort pulls funding away from candidates in what seems to be the prime pickup year of 2006. But Dean has persisted, with a fair amount of grass-roots support. But perhaps the highest profile case in which the Democrats have turned towards partisanship has been the difficulties of Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. In a situation that resembles nothing so much as the Specter/Toomey fight in Pennsylvania in 2004, Lieberman is facing a stiff primary battle from Ned Lamont, a newcomer to the political scene who is running to the left of Lieberman and, most importantly, making a serious issue of Lieberman’s habit of bipartisanship. Should Lieberman lose, it would create for the Democrats what the Republicans already have: an effective deterrent against Senators or Representatives crossing party lines too loudly or too often.

But, in sum, partisanship is not some invention of the 1990s or the Republican party. It is, rather, more the natural state of American politics, one that was temporarily obscured by the consensual bipartisanship of the Cold War. Cooperation and comity in politics has often been called for, but those calls have only rarely been answered. In a system deliberately created for inefficiency and cross-checking, strong party discipline across the branches of government has been one of the few effective ways of wielding power. That it produces fevered and frequently nasty politics is simply a statement about the stakes in play.