In Defense of Partisan Politics

Pietro S. Nivola
Pietro Nivola
Pietro S. Nivola Former Brookings Expert

April 8, 2009

Pietro Nivola outlines an upside to the intense polarization taking shape in U.S. politics. William Galston offers a response in “ One and Half Cheers for Bipartisanship .”

From the steps of the Capitol on January 20th, President Barack Obama appealed for an end to the politics of “petty grievances” and “worn-out dogmas.” The year 2009 was supposed to mark the dawn of a post-partisan era. With any luck, Democrats and Republicans would stop quarreling, and would finally get down to work together. The time had come, exhorted the new president drawing from Scripture, to lay “childish” polemics aside.

But childish or not, America’s partisan politics have remained as stubbornly intense and polarized as ever. To paraphrase more Scripture, the lambs remain unwilling to lie down with the lions. And there are few signs of partisan swords being turned into plowshares. Far from opening a new age of bipartisan comity in the House of Representatives, the president and the Democratic majority received not a single Republican vote in their first big legislative test, the roll call on the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus”). More recently, not one Republican in the Senate or the House voted for the concurrent resolution on the president’s budget. More, not less, of such party-line voting probably lies ahead.

So here’s a heretical thought: Maybe, among the many inflated expectations that we attach to the Obama presidency and should temper, those about the advent of “post-partisanship” ought to be lowered, drastically. In other words, get over it. The rough-and-tumble of our party politics is here to stay. What’s more—and this is even greater heresy—not everything about that fact of political life is horrible.


The Democratic and Republican parties today are each more cemented in their ideologies and more distinct than they were a generation ago. In Congress, party lines used to be blurred by the existence of so-called liberal Republicans and truly conservative Democrats. Now those factions are dwindling species. Why they are dying out is a long story that has been the object of an extensive study titled Red and Blue Nation? cosponsored by Brookings and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. For present purposes, suffice it to recognize that the disputes between Republicans and Democrats are about more than “petty grievances” (though there are plenty of them, too); the party differences run deep and fundamentally reflect differing convictions held by large blocs of voters, not just their elected representatives. An example: Whereas a staggering 84 percent of Democrats seem to believe “it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure that everyone in the United States has adequate health care,” only 34 percent of Republicans evidently concur, according to a reputable national poll taken last November.

Because both parties are more cohesive, they are also more disciplined. If you are a member of Congress and you basically agree with your party’s position on most salient issues, why defect to the other side on key votes? Americans of the baby-boom generation are not accustomed to seeing this high degree of party unity. They remember the old days when the main way to do business on Capitol Hill was to cobble together ad-hoc coalitions. Want a civil rights bill? Get northern Democrats and Republican moderates on your side, and hope that you have enough votes to overpower the conservative phalanx of southern Democrats and states’-rights Republicans. Want more money for the Vietnam War in the 1960s? Combine solid support from that bipartisan conservative bloc with plenty of other hawkish stalwarts in both parties (think reliable GOP loyalists like Everett Dirksen but also Scoop Jackson Democrats), and you’d get the funds.

Increasingly, the contemporary party system bears scant resemblance to the one that prevailed a half-century ago. What it resembles instead is politics in most other periods of American history, for example the late nineteenth century when the two parties were also internally coherent and keenly at odds. During such periods, the American parties have behaved more like political parties in parliamentary regimes—where the in-party (the governing majority) rules, and the out-party (the minority) consistently forms a loyal opposition.

Notice this distinctive feature of the parliamentary model: Not only can the majority, voting in lockstep, prevail with no help from opposition members; all it needs on board in order to legislate is a simple majority of the legislators. Supermajorities—the requirement in the U.S. Senate to override a filibuster—are never the norm. A parliamentary system, in other words, operates much like our congressional budget reconciliation process where as little as a one-vote margin in the House and as little as 51 votes in the Senate suffice to adopt a bill.

There is much handwringing about the trend toward majoritarian—that is, parliamentary-style—politics in the United States. Democrats moaned when the GOP, led by George W. Bush, drove tax cuts through Congress on nearly a party-line vote with Vice President Cheney casting the tie-breaker. Now, Republicans will groan if the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership opt to use the reconciliation procedure to ram health-care reform into law.

But is all the lamentation justified?


One of the advantages of parliamentary democracy is that the electorate knows what to expect. What you see (or vote for) is what you get. As America becomes parliamentary, if voters elect a Republican president and congressional majority, here’s a good bet: Tax cuts will be on the way. If voters elect a Democratic president and congressional majority—running on a party platform that declares universal health care to be a “moral imperative”—guess what? Health-care legislation to extend coverage will happen. Now, granted one can debate the policy merits of either party’s priorities. Robotic tax-cutting runs up deficits—and so almost certainly will health care that covers everybody. But if the voters have explicitly empowered their elected officials to do either of these things, who are “we” to stand in the way?

Further, the voters have plenty of opportunity to change their minds. If they decide that mistakes are being made—or that they prefer an alternative agenda to the one being proffered by the party in power—they can throw the rascals out. Indeed, in this country, unlike practically every other democracy, the public gets a chance to entertain that option with extraordinary frequency: every two years.

Nor, from the standpoint of democratic theory, is it easy to make an airtight case for why Congress and the president should be forced to muster supermajorities to enact their most important priorities. Ours, like any sound democracy, has to balance principles of majority rule with minority rights. But a political order in which technically just over 7 percent of a legislature—that is, a sub-group that possibly represents as little as 10 percent of the population—can have the last word, as our Senate arithmetic can imply, raises serious questions of democratic accountability and even legitimacy. Let’s face it; making a regular practice of putting, in effect, veto-power in the hands of a minority is hard to square with a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The Virtues of a Choice, Not an Echo

There is one other thing to say in defense of heightened partisanship: It has succeeded in making elections more interesting.

Voters have a tendency to become indifferent and apathetic when asked to choose between alternatives that display not “a dime’s worth of difference,” as the old saying went about our two-party system during the heyday of bipartisan comingling.

By contrast, as Marc J. Hetherington of Vanderbilt University demonstrates in a key chapter of Red and Blue Nation?, voter participation has surged as the partisan divide has grown sharper.

The electorate is not turned off by the chasm, and contestation, between the parties. On the contrary, Hetherington finds, the polarized political parties have animated voters of all stripes—liberals, conservatives, and moderates. Growing civic engagement and voter turnouts are hallmarks of a vibrant democracy, not of a “broken” one.