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By Jay Cost

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Three Cheers for Partisanship!

Political polarization has been on the rise in the last few years. I recently completed an analysis of presidential elections that showed it to have bottomed out in 1988, but steadily rising in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. By the metrics I used, 2008 was the most polarized presidential election in recent history.

It's also been on the rise in Congress. The following picture is from Keith Poole's excellent website on congressional ratings, and it is taken from the page that summarizes the book he co-authored with Nolan McCarthy and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America. It shows the average ideological score for Republicans and Democrats in the House going back to the 1870s:

House Party Means.jpg

A picture tells a thousand words.

It was in this polarized political climate that Barack Obama announced his intention of running for President back in January, 2007. In his introductory video, he said the following:

But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most - it's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before, but today our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.

At the time, I took this to be Obama's argument as to why he should be elected President as opposed to anybody else who wanted the job. He was always going to have his work cut out for him. By their methodology, Poole and Rosenthal found that the 110th Senate was the most polarized since Reconstruction.

For better or worse, Obama's promise of bipartisanship has yet to be fulfilled, as the vote on the stimulus bill demonstrates. We'll see how the 111th Congress ultimately rates, but it's off to a great start to beat the 110th as the most polarized since Reconstruction.

Last week, I argued that bipartisanship was easy to talk about, but much harder to achieve. It frequently conflicts with honest differences of opinion in visions of the public good. It can conflict with the personal goals of ambitious politicians. And, the easiest bipartisanship "compromise" - the status quo - is often unacceptable to the mass public. All of these factors seem to have conspired to divide the stimulus vote in Congress pretty neatly along party lines. With bipartisanship not dead but not at all well, I want to take an opportunity on President's Day to argue: who cares? Bipartisanship is overrated, anyway!

The first point I'd make is that bipartisanship is not the only solution for our political problems. We have other methods that have served us well in the past. Typically, one of the reasons people extol the virtues of bipartisanship is that it is a way to break up gridlock. The same old, same old crowd in Washington isn't getting stuff done, and we need both sides to put down their petty differences and just do it. But we have other ways to get Washingtonians moving in the direction we want. We call them elections. In fact, just 22 months after the House of Representatives is seated, every member of that body will stand for reelection. This can be a very effective way to get things done. Just compare the 103rd Congress to the 104th, and now the 109th to the 111th.

Elections can break up gridlock, but that doesn't mean that they all do. Most of them don't. But is that a bad thing? I've argued many times on this page that gridlock is a predictable result, given our constitutional system. The Framers were very concerned about one faction rolling another faction in our country, thus destroying true republican government. The solution they settled upon was to pit power against power in a divided system. The idea behind it was that, when there is a broad coalition that favored a change in the status quo, our system would allow that change to go through. Otherwise, expect there to be gridlock, which is really just a signal that some faction has used its power to thwart another faction. If the Framers had employed slogan writers, they might have called it, "Pluralism we can believe in!"

Second point. Ideally speaking, bipartisanship has some real benefits. But when we view it in practical terms - above all with an eye toward the way the average voter actually behaves - we see some serious drawbacks. Political scientists have discovered at least one consistent theme about the American voter in the sixty or so years they have been using the scientific survey: he doesn't know terribly much about politics. Think of all those surveys you hear of where the average respondent can't name a single Supreme Court Justice, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

We can bemoan the state of the average American's political knowledge all we want, but that doesn't mean we can do much about it. This is America, after all. If Joe doesn't want to know anything about politics, it's his right. The more interesting question is this: given his ignorance, how does the average voter nevertheless make a decision about whom to support? Answer: political parties! Think of it this way. Joe can't name a single member of Congress (beyond perhaps his own), doesn't know a single Supreme Court Justice, and needs a minute or two to remember the Vice President's name. But he knows that the Democratic Party is generally for expanding government and the Republican Party is generally for shrinking it. Does he have enough information to make a reasonably informed choice? I'd say yes - that more often than note he'll pick the party that corresponds with his own interests that cycle. In other words, the party label is a heuristic device, a mental shortcut that helps low information voters make a reasonably informed choice.

So, here's the next question: what would happen if our politicians were suddenly afflicted with severe bipartisanship? We might achieve some happy, short term political benefits, as everybody makes nice with everybody else, but over time we might be hurt. If the party label is a heuristic device that low info voters use to guide their decisions, it has to be maintained. You do that in two ways: everybody on your side (a) agrees with each other, and (b) disagrees with everybody on the other side. If this happens both on the campaign trail and in government, low info voters will be able to intuit clear differences between the parties, and thus be able to make a more informed choice. Bipartisanship means that the two sides are agreeing more often with each other (and there's probably more disagreement within each side, too). After a while, low info voters might not be able to tease out any differences between the parties, and then it'll be just as Ralph Nader (and Bob Dylan) said: a choice between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

What if the median position on the Republican side is where Norm Coleman generally stands and the median position on the Democratic side is where Ben Nelson stands, but both sides still have diehards like Jim DeMint and Russ Feingold? Congress might be able to get a lot done in the short term, but in the long term average voters are going to have a hard time keeping them accountable, as they'd be less able to differentiate which side stands for what. Decrease democratic accountability, and you decrease the odds that Congress is working for the people.

With all of the special interests and moneyed groups trolling around the halls of Congress as I write this, we need to remember that partisanship is one of the precious few things in Congress that actually works for the people generally. It's a way for average folks to hold members of Congress accountable. Bipartisanship might be good in the short term, but in the long term it might interfere with our limited abilities to keep the legislature in line.

And if you don't much care for the party line vote on H.R. 1 we witnessed last week, you might appreciate it come November, 2010. After all, it is crystal clear who supported what measures to adopt in pursuit of recovery. In 21 months, if the economy has recovered to our satisfaction - swing voters will know to credit the Democrats. If it hasn't, they'll know to blame them. Their vote choices will be reasonably informed, even if they spend more time reading Us Weekly than US News.