Partisanship in Perspective

The following was orginally published in National Affairs (Issue Number 5 p.91-104)

Commentators and politicians from both ends of the spectrum frequently lament the state of American party politics. Our elected leaders are said to have grown exceptionally polarized — a change that, the critics argue, has led to a dysfunctional government.

Last June, for example, House Republican leader John Boehner decried what he called the Obama administration’s “harsh” and “hyper-partisan” rhetoric. In Boehner’s view, the president’s hostility toward Republicans is a smokescreen to obscure Obama’s policy failures, and “diminishes the office of the president.” Meanwhile, President Obama himself has complained that Washington is a city in the grip of partisan passions, and so is failing to do the work the American people expect. “I don’t think they want more gridlock,” Obama told Republican members of Congress last year. “I don’t think they want more partisanship; I don’t think they want more obstruc­tion.” In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama yearned for what he called a “time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.”

The case against partisan polarization generally consists of three elements. First, there is the claim that polarization has intensified sig­nificantly over the past 30 years. Second, there is the argument that this heightened partisanship imperils sound and durable public policy, perhaps even the very health of the polity. And third, there is the impres­sion that polarized parties are somehow fundamentally alien to our form of government, and that partisans’ behavior would have surprised, even shocked, the founding fathers.

Though the first of these propositions is now nearly a cliché, it hap­pens to be right. There is, in fact, more discord between Republicans difficult question is whether the divergence of the parties is entirely unhealthy — that is, whether it inevitably impairs effective governance and diminishes the quality of civic life. Moreover, is it something with little precedent in our politics, a novelty the founders would have viewed with anxiety and profound regret?

Answering these questions calls for a re-examination of the nature and scope of contemporary partisanship, an assessment of its consequences, and an effort to compare the role of political parties today with the par­tisan divisions that prevailed during the first years of the republic. By putting partisanship in perspective, we can draw some reassurance from history — and also identify those facets of our contemporary situation that could spell trouble in due course.