Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why is partisanship bad?

It's amazing how quickly a solid article on party polarization can shift from descriptive to normative. Take David Herszenhorn's piece in today's NYT. He starts with an interesting observation:
The health care legislation was approved Thursday morning, with the Senate divided on party lines — something that has not happened in modern times on so important a shift in domestic policy, or on major legislation of any kind, lawmakers and Congressional historians said.
Fair enough. But then the article contains a series of diatribes by lawmakers about how bad a thing this is:
Many senators said the current vitriol, which continued on the floor on Wednesday with a fight over when to cast the final health care vote, was unlike anything they had seen. “It has gotten so much more partisan,” said Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia. “This was so wicked. This was so venal.”
Wicked? Really?
“There’s a tolerance level here for what we have just been through, and I think we have hit the tipping point,” said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut. “It got rougher than it should. We are getting precariously close to fracturing an institution where no one wins, so I think we are going to be back on track.”
Well, if the Senate's an institution where no one wins, I say fracture it. But that's probably not what Dodd is saying.
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, and chairman of the Finance Committee, said the political — and often personal — divisions that now characterize the Senate were epitomized by the empty tables in the senators’ private dining room, a place where members of both parties used to break bread.

“Nobody goes there anymore,” Mr. Baucus said. “When I was here 10, 15, 30 years ago, that was the place you would go to talk to senators, let your hair down, just kind of compare notes, no spouses allowed, no staff, nobody. It is now empty.”
Maybe the food sucks.

Even political scientist Ross Baker gets into the groove:
“It certainly is a culmination of a long period of intensifying political polarization,” Mr. Baker said of this year’s showdown over health care. “It has gotten so bad now that Republicans don’t want to be seen publicly in the presence of Democrats or have a Democrat profess friendship for them or vice versa.”
The theme is constant throughout the article. Partisan = bad. Yet nowhere in this article (or just about any other article I can think of) is it explained just why partisanship is a bad thing. How is our democracy better served by legislators who like to eat together? I certainly get it from the perspective of senators -- they have to work with the same people over and over again. It's unpleasant to be in a divisive work environment. But how much of what you believe in are you willing to surrender so that you can get along with your colleagues?

Finally, a key point: this sort of polarization is actually typical. The bipartisanship for which modern senators and David Broder pine was a brief historical anomaly in American politics. Matt Yglesias sums it up nicely:
It just happens to be the case that a lot of people alive today were acculturated to the unusual non-polarized politics of the 1930s-1970s in which the salience of racial issues scrambled partisan/ideological configurations. I think polarization is a good thing but even if you disagree the only proven way to minimize it is to have a large and influential white supremacist movement obtain substantial congressional representation.

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