Know Nothings and Do Nothings

Frank Rich writes,

The historian Alan Brinkley has observed that we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress — and therefore government as a whole — has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education.

I’d very much like to read Professor Brinkley’s analysis of why that is true. Rich blames political polarization, the corruptions of special interest, and a lack of leadership in Congress and in particular the Senate. I think most of us would agree with Rich’s analysis.

But, while I couldn’t find Brinkley’s precise argument about why Congress is so ineffectual, there are clues to his thinking in an op ed he wrote in September 2008. In “The Party’s Over,” Brinkley discusses the role political parties played in government in the past and says that role fundamentally has changed in the past 40 years. The problem, he says, is that we’re moving into a post-partisan world.

That’s way out of line with conventional wisdom, but hear him out. Before the 1960s, Brinkley says, party loyalty played a stabilizing role in American politics. This was partly because party loyalty was more important to most Americans than ideology.

The two major parties in the late 19th century had few policy differences and, on the whole, shared a common, conservative philosophy; but that was of little importance to the way in which the political process worked. Few voters seemed to care. They were not much committed to their candidates, but they were passionately committed to their parties — in much the same way many people today care about baseball or football teams. Party loyalty, like fan loyalty today, had little to do with most people’s economic or social interests, but it inspired great passion nevertheless.

The two major parties, whether Whigs and Federalists or Democrats and Republicans, both represented a spectrum of opinions and positions. Generally, IMO, one party tended to skew more or less progressive than the other, but this role relative to the other party shifted over time. A century ago, for example, the Republican Party on the whole was the more progressive of the two.

Also, conventional wisdom about each party’s proclivities shift over time. For example, I remember adults of the 1950s and 1960s stoutly declaring that Democrats liked to start wars to boost the economy. I haven’t heard that one lately.

The point is that in the past a political party was not expected to be as rigidly and narrowly ideological as we seem to want them to be today. In fact, Brinkley says, through most of American history the parties were a “bulwark against factional anarchy.” Because each party enjoyed robust and reliable support from a citizen base while representing a spectrum of views, “reaching across the aisle” was not so difficult nor so politically perilous.

Further, before the 1960s it was usually the case that the president and the congressional majority were of the same party, and the president’s party played a vital role in ensuring their president had a successful administration. Ultimately, his political success was their political success as well.

Now, you’ve got one party that has locked itself in a tiny ideological box, to the point that it cannot be worked with. President Obama spoke to this on Friday —

I’m not suggesting that we’re going to agree on everything, whether it’s on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.

I saw some rightie blog posts that called out this remark, and the bloggers clearly were baffled by it. They had no idea what Obama was saying here. But of course, the President is exactly right. The Republicans have done such a good job persuading the party base that Democrats are the Devil Incarnate that a Republican who compromises with them at all is risking his career. Conceding so much as half a stale doughnut to a Democrat can get a Republican targeted to be taken out in the next primary by somebody more rigid and uncompromising.

Meanwhile, the Dems have turned into the “every man for himself” party. Their personal political careers are no longer tied to their president’s success. They’ll support him if and when it is politically expedient to do so. They’ll turn against him if and when it is politically expedient to do so. This leaves the President in a weakened and more vulnerable position than were presidents of the past. It also set the stage for a handful of Democratic senators to sink the party’s signature legislative issue, health care reform, without fear of punishment.

“Today, untethered from the party system, many voters seize increasingly not on issues that affect their lives, but on whatever simply catches their interest — inflammatory social issues, personalities, and even lapel pins,” Brinkley writes. Beneath that, IMO, is a kind of ideological tribalism that is in many ways more primitive than the party loyalties of the past. No issue — lapel pins are an example — is so trivial it can’t be turned into an effective dog whistle.

However, these days on the Right the dog whistles aren’t coming from the party as much as from right-wing media personalities and their corporate sponsors. IMO the departure of Karl Rove left a vacuum that no one within the party was able to fill, and the Koch Foundation et al. were all too happy to charge in and fill the void.

Both parties are guilty of being more responsive to special interests than to their constituents, but at the moment the actual leadership of the Republican Party is almost irrelevant. Weirdly, as we see in the “tea party” movement, the Party’s lemming base is more loyal to the special interests than they are to the party. Or, at least, the special interests are doing a better job of dog-whistling these days, and they are no longer relying on the GOP to do their dog whistling for them.

Thanks to right-wing media and the phenomena of astroturfing, the Powers That Be can manipulate the base directly without the GOP having to be involved. But of course this puts elected Republicans in an even tighter box, since they have no following except by the grace of the Corporate/Media Overlords. This is another reason why softening their positions and working with Democrats even a little bit is political suicide for Republicans.

The Dems have the opposite problem, since much of what might be the national Democratic Party base is actually at odds with the corporate powers and occasionally at odds with some legislators’ more conservative voter base. Further, I don’t think Washington Dems count on progressives to be all that reliable a base. So individual Dems make individual calculations about how “progressive” they can allow themselves to be and still be re-elected. And, as I said, since party loyalty is no longer a determining factor in elections, it is less and less a determining factor in individual Democrats’ legislative positions.

So, while the Republicans are rendered dysfunctional by being locked in a tiny ideological box, Dems are rendered dysfunctional by a lack of cohesion — the party of Know Nothings and the party of Do Nothings.

Whenever I bring up parties some genius always chirps that what we need is a third party. Beside the fact that third parties can’t win national elections in the U.S., I think this is a variation on Sara Robinson’s third fallacy — the belief that the key to enacting progressive legislation is packing Congress with politicians who think the way we do. If we don’t do something to change the nation’s political culture, there is no reason to believe such a party would be any more effectual than the Dems are now, because that third party would soon fall prey to the same corruptions that got to the Dems.

It’s clear to me that a matrix of reforms is needed to restore the government to something approximating competence, including media reform as well as reform of governmental institutions. I still fear things haven’t gotten bad enough yet to make such reform possible.

15 thoughts on “Know Nothings and Do Nothings

  1. Nod. I’m in an optimistic mood, but what I think is we need multiple subsidized news corporations and publicly funded elections. We need both – independent news coverage and the ability of independent politicians to run for office.

    The realist in me says it’s not going to happen, especially not now, but I think those are the things we most need.

  2. “Further, I don’t think Washington Dems count on progressives to be all that reliable a base.”
    Maybe if they acted and voted like progressives more often than not, or even once in a while, they could count on that base.
    I’ve been voting in NY, then NC, and now back in NY, for over 30 years and I hope to one day vote for the NY version of Paul Wellstone. Until then, I have to hold my nose and vote for Chuckles and Kirsten.

    • Maybe if they acted and voted like progressives more often than not, or even once in a while, they could count on that base.

      I kind of understand why the Washington Dems think they can’t rely on the progressive base for support. Most of the big shots are about my age, and I suspect most of them began their careers in politics in the 1970s, or maybe the 1980s. And there really wasn’t much in the way of a progressive voting base in the 1070s through the 1990s. Liberal activists had walked away from party politics, for the most part. The rest of us were busy yelling ineffectually at our TV sets. Presidential candidates who made even mild noises in favor of liberalism — I’m thinking of Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis — were buried on election day. Until the Web made us visible, we didn’t even know there was a progressive base. I think some of the old guys still haven’t gotten used to the idea that there are progressives who might support them if they do the right thing. They may assume we’ll become invisible again as soon as things get a little better.

  3. I think we are on the verge of the birth of a third party, the fractured repubs joined by frustrated indies and blue dogs; it could be formidable.
    Its sucess is doubtful, but its coming.

    Here in Florida, the big political football is a high speed rail system linking Tampa and Orlando. We need the jobs it would produce, but the right is crowing about the waste of tax payer dollars.They think the ridership will drop after a short time leaving us with a white elephant.
    In my opinion, we must think ahead, gas prices and availability in the future may take a turn for the worse, the commute from Tampa to Orlando takes about an hour and a half- if the weather is good, there are no wrecks, and no construction projects in progress. The much crowed about “Free Markets” will have a chance to build off the rail system for peripheral transportation.
    I’m quite sure there were nay sayers regarding the interstate highway system when it was conceived.
    To prevent the possibility of low ridership, you’d think ideas like tax incentives for business, amenities on the train like high speed internet, movies, food and beverage, sound systems, etc would be offered. If that doesn’t do the trick, offer gambling…. the place would be plugged with seniors from all over the country.
    We need a 21st century transportation system, and the link from Tampa to Orlando is the root to branch off.If we build it we MAKE it work.

  4. A minor point (and nothing to do with what you wrote):

    Not to disagree with what Brinkley seems to be getting at, but the difference between a Hamiltonian and a Jeffersonian was obvious. Also the difference between a Jacksonian and an anti-Jacksonian. I’ve always thought the state of the parties in late 19th C was quite unusual – parties in realignment, but the realignment never jelled (probably because of the national trauma of the Civil War). But I’m not a historian, I just find it interesting.

    Back to today: sure looks like the R leadership is doubling down – simply repeating the same talking points that Obama schooled them on so well on Friday.

    • the difference between a Hamiltonian and a Jeffersonian was obvious.

      Yeah, that’s the problem with short essays; you have to over-generalize. Certainly there were some issues that people were passionate about. That slavery thing was a tad divisive, as I recall. Even so, within parties you could find a range of opinions on many issues.

  5. Some of the ‘forcing competency’ issue is a given, as most voting regular working joes are increasingly having to be more and more competent in their own daily jobs, while watching those above them get a pass. And most of those RWJs are Dems and independent.

    As for most conservatives:

    Back to today: sure looks like the R leadership is doubling down – simply repeating the same talking points that Obama schooled them on so well on Friday.

    I think they know the talking points act as mantras to help calm the agitating cognitive dissonance within most of their base. On the few right wing blogs that will have me, there’s a frenzy of proving the “truth” of one mantra with other mantras. More than usual. At least from the smarter ones. Most as usual, mindlessly headbob and hate speak. If there isn’t a Janeane Garofalo interview or something soon I think some heads are gonna pop.

    I don’t see much talk about ‘elites’ on right wing blogs. These people seem convinced that Obama is delusional, a communist, a liar, a tyrant, a dumb bastard, a sociopath, a muslim and illegal (in those exact words), and that liberals are stupid and foolish tools regardless of how well Obama knows his stuff. But then bloggers aren’t an accurate representation of the voters as a whole.

  6. Wonderful post – very original analysis of a dynamic the pros don’t have a handle on yet. I don’t think the pros will figure out after the 2010 election how the dynamic has changed among VOTERS to a post-partisan world.The media is barely onto the theme of the ‘angry voter’, but they are still computing swing and momentum along a spectrum with the GOP at the right end and the Dems on the left end. The voters who are undeclared, the independents, are 45% of the electorate and they are not voting according to that metric. They ignored party ideology and historical trends in special elections in upstate NY and in Massachusetts. (I know, I said this before.)

    When they do a post-mortem of the 2010 elections, I predict it will look like a mass murder with a different cause of death in each different election. There isn’t going to be a distinct swing to the right (though the GOP will claim is) – and it won’t be purely anti-incumbent, either. The candidate stronger on ‘character’ will win. This isn’t going to be an aberration of the 2010 election. It started in 2006, continued in 2008 and everyone read it as a partisan shift. It wasn’t. 2006 was the beginning of the post-partisan era. The lesson of the post-partisan era will be that the moderate who tries to be everything for everyone will lose. (Mitt Romney comes to mind.) The politician with a clear and consistent message – even a crazy one – will build a loyal following . (Ron Paul comes to mind.)

    I’m convinced that the Democrats up for reelection in 2010 who follow the Romney model (which is the professional one, that’s worked for decades) will get run over. Romney did despite spending buckets of money. At the risk of being annoying, I’ll repeat it when it’s on topic in the hope that some Dem staffer will read it, and persuade the candidate that standing up for something is going to be safer than doing nothing.

    Delusions are a fringe benefit of cheap weed.

  7. I’m reminded of the tea bagger holding a poster that said: “Get a Brain Moran.”

    Clearly that fellow thought he was better informed than most. About what, I have no idea. But whatever it was, he seemed convinced that those who disagreed with whatever he was protesting were morons.

    And, of course, I thought the same about him.

    Thing is, that man and I might agree on most things if we both received the same accurate and comprehensive information. But we don’t. In a very real sense, we don’t even speak the same language.– I don’t undertand the point he’s trying to make, and he wouldn’t understand what I may have to say on the subject because liberals are brainwashed socialist commie fascists. So how can we possibly work together to address our mutual problems?

    Yes, there are many factors contributing to our national disunity, but the media has much to answer for. When we can’t tell the truth from the lies, we generally opt for whatever “fact” matches up with our opinions.

    What kind of country are we looking at here, where corporations, politicians and the media can lie with impunity? Like you, Maha, I think it’s going to get ugy before it gets better.

  8. maha,
    Late to comment here, I know, but the anti-nuke movement should have signalled to them that the liberal/progressive movement wasn’t dead. Of course, those rallies had a lot of DFH’s in it. Young AND old. Actually, that mifht have scared them off, too.

    • c u n d gulag, the anti-nuke movement barely registered with anyone. That sort of single-issue advocacy was part of the problem. Once the New Deal coalition fell apart no new coalition stepped up to fill the void, and I don’t think politicians thought of any of the single-issue movements as a “base.”

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