Party polarization is not the same as ideological polarization
Ruth Marcus's column defending the filibuster turns on what I think to be the strongest argument in favor of the filibuster. It goes something like this: Yes, the filibuster has become constant. And yes, that's a new development. But there's a reason for that: "the increasing polarization of politics." And the filibuster is the only bulwark against that polarization.
There's a problem with this argument, though, and it turns on an ambiguity about the word "polarization."
There's a difference between partisan polarization, in which the two parties find it more difficult to cooperate, and ideological polarization, in which the society's range of political opinion is stretched. In Marcus's conclusion, she implies we're suffering from both, decrying "excessive partisanship and ideological extremism."
But is that true? Take the health-care bill. "It is no accident that the Senate health-care bill is better than its House counterpart," Marcus says. Putting aside whether the Senate bill actually is better than the House bill -- the House bill is certainly better on coverage and regulation than the Senate bill -- what's striking is how close they are to each other, and how far they are from past efforts. Medicare, which passed with more than a dozen Republican votes at a time when a majority was sufficient, was far more ideologically pure than the House health-care bill -- or anything that Democrats ever considered proposing.
What no one doubts is that we have more partisanship. But that's a fairly simple story: Where the parties were internally riven by racism in the 1950s, they've realigned along ideological lines in the years since. That's meant that they act more like parties, which means uniting and manipulating the rules to trip the other guys up and win elections. And this is the relevant dynamic: Republicans aren't lockstep against Democrats because Democrats are more liberal than they were in the ’60s. Democrats are not more liberal than they were in the ’60s. Republicans have a political strategy to win the next election and that strategy is undercut by helping the majority party pass legislation. And who can blame them? The strategy is clearly working to improve their electoral position, even if it's not resulting in good governance of the country.
David Leonhardt put this neatly: We are "politically partisan and substantively bipartisan." That is to say, Congress is very partisan, but not very extreme. Would allowing majority rule really be such a terrible experiment under those conditions?
It's hard to see how. The alternative, of course, is unending gridlock. But Marcus, like me, believes this country has problems it needs to solve: Health-care spending, the long-term budget deficit, global warming. Unending gridlock is simply not an option. Given all that, there are two potential ways to break the paralysis: End partisanship or change the rules of the Congress. I have never heard a convincing proposal to end partisanship. And it will be even harder after Republicans gain seats in 2010 atop a strategy of relentless obstruction -- much as Democrats did in 2006, and Republicans did in 1994. Conversely, I have heard plenty of proposals to change the rules of the Senate -- many of which would preserve the right to lengthy debate.
The alternative is a system that simply doesn't work, even -- or possibly especially-- when it needs to. And that's scarier even than majority rule.
Photo credit: Associated Press
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