The Second Civil War
How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America
In recent years American politics has seemingly become much more partisan, more zero-sum, more vicious, and less able to confront the real problems our nation faces. What has happened?
America is the richest and most powerful country in the world. It may be the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world.
But it cannot agree on a plan to reduce its dependence on foreign oil
Nor can it balance its federal budget.
It can't provide health insurance for the nearly one in six Americans without it, either.
It can't agree on a plan to improve security at its borders and provide a humane way to deal with the estimated twelve million illegal immigrants working in its fields and factories and restaurants.
It can't align the promises it has made to seniors through Social Security and Medicare with the tax burdens that future generations realistically can bear.
It can't agree on the steps to rebuild economic security for middle-class Americans in the age of global economic competition. It can't formulate a strategy for reducing the emissions of the gases that contribute to global warming and potentially disruptive changes in the climate.
It cannot agree on an approach to fight the threat of Islamic terrorism, at home and abroad, in a way that unites the country with shared purpose.
None of these problems are new. All have been discussed for years in the media. All are the subject of constant debate in Washington. In most cases the options for dealing with them are limited and familiar.
Why, then, has America failed to make more progress against these challenges?
The answer, above all, is that the day-to-day functioning of American politics now inhibits the constructive compromises between the parties required to confront these problems. The political system has evolved to a point where the vast majority of elected officials in each party feel comfortable only advancing ideas acceptable to their core supporters—their "base," in the jargon of modern campaigns. But progress against these problems, and almost all other challenges facing America, requires comprehensive solutions that marry ideas favored by one party and opposed by the other. It's implausible, for instance, to imagine that we can address the long-term challenge of Social Security and Medicare without both reducing benefits and increasing taxes. Or that we can regain control of our borders without significantly toughening enforcement and creating a legal framework for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States. Or that we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil without reducing consumption and increasing domestic production. Yet in each of those cases, and all the others listed above, most elected officials in one of the two major parties will not accept half of that solution. The result is to prevent us from using all of the tools available to attack our problems. One side proposes to control the deficit solely through spending cuts; the other side almost entirely through tax increases. One party proposes to produce more energy, the other to conserve more energy. In fact, to make meaningful progress against any of these problems, the answer is almost always that we will need to do both. Yet because each party seeks to impose its will on the other—and recoils from actions that might challenge its core supporters—it cannot propose comprehensive solutions. We are left with either-or alternatives—increase production or reduce consumption, cut benefits or raise taxes—when the challenges demand that we apply solutions built on the principle of both-and.
This book examines how we have reached this dangerous impasse. It rests on an unambiguous conclusion: The central obstacle to more effective action against our most pressing problems is an unrelenting polarization of American politics that has divided Washington and the country into hostile, even irreconcilable camps. Competition and even contention between rival parties has been part of American political life since its founding. That partisan rivalry most often has been a source of energy, innovation, and inspiration. But today the parties are losing the capacity to recognize their shared interest in placing boundaries on their competition—and in transcending it when the national interest demands. On some occasions—notably efforts to balance the federal budget and reform the welfare system under Bill Clinton, and an initiative to rethink federal education policy in George W. Bush's first year—they have collaborated on reasonable compromises. But for most of the past two decades the two sides have collided with such persistent and unwavering disagreement on everything from taxes to Social Security to social and foreign policy that it sometimes seems they are organizing not only against each other, but against the idea of compromise itself.
Against this backdrop of perpetual conflict, America is living through a transformation of its political life. For most of our history American political parties have functioned as loose coalitions that lightly tether diverse ideological views. Because the parties were so diverse, they have usually operated as a force that synthesized the diverse interests in American society. As the great political historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, "In our politics, each major party has become a compound, a hodgepodge, of various and conflicting interests; and the imperatives of party struggle, the quest for victory and for offices, have forced the parties to undertake the business of conciliation and compromise among such interests."
That definition is obsolete. From Congress and the White House through the grassroots, the parties today are becoming less diverse, more ideologically homogeneous, and less inclined to pursue reasonable agreements. American government, as we'll see in the chapters ahead, usually has worked best when it is open to a broad array of views and perspectives, and seeks to harmonize a diverse range of interests. Today the dynamics of the political competition are narrowing the perspectives of each party in a manner that pushes them toward operating as the champion of one group of Americans against another—with dangerous results for all Americans. Reconfigured by the large forces we will explore in this book, our politics today encourages confrontation over compromise. The political system now rewards ideology over pragmatism. It is designed to sharpen disagreements rather than construct consensus. It is built on exposing and inflaming the differences that separate Americans rather than the shared priorities and values that unite them. It produces too much animosity and too few solutions.
Political leaders on both sides now feel a relentless pressure for party discipline and intellectual conformity more common in parliamentary systems than through most of American history. Any politician who attempts to build alliances across party lines is more likely to provoke suspicion and criticism than praise. "People want you to choose sides so badly in modern politics, there is no ability to cross [party lines]," Senator Lindsey Graham, a conservative but iconoclastic Republican from South Carolina. "You are one team versus the other and never shall the twain meet. If it's a Democratic idea, I have to be against it because it came from a Democrat. And vice versa."
Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the former Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, used almost the exact same terms to describe the changes he experienced during the twenty-eight years he served in the House before retiring after 2004. "There is no dialogue [between the parties]," he said. "You are either in the blue team or the red team, and you never wander off. It's like the British Parliament. And I never thought about it that much when I came, but it was very different then. It wasn't a parliamentary system, and people wandered off their side and voted in committee or on the floor with the other side. There was this understanding that we were there to solve problems.The wars between the two parties that take place every day in Washington may seem to most Americans a form of distant posturing, like border clashes between two countries they could not find on the map. But this polarization of political life imposes a tangible cost on every American family—a failure to confront all of the problems listed above with sensible solutions that could improve life for average Americans. Less tangibly but as importantly, extreme partisanship has produced a toxic environment that empowers the most adversarial and shrill voices in each party and disenfranchises the millions of Americans more attracted to pragmatic compromise than to ideological crusades. The reflexive, even ritualized, combat of modern politics leaves fewer attractive choices for all Americans who don't want to be conscripted into a battle between feuding ideologues or forced to link arms with Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.
Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush in 2004 and chairman of the Republican National Committee during part of his second term, does not exaggerate when he says America is now living through an era of "hyperpartisanship."
The defining characteristics of this age of hyperpartisanship are greater unity within the parties and more intense conflicts between them. On almost every major issue, the distance between the two parties has widened, even as dissent within the parties has diminished. Interest groups in each party are escalating their efforts to enforce ideological discipline on elected officials. Each party has demonstrated greater willingness to employ confrontational tactics that earlier generations considered excessive.
This new political order, as we'll see, has some of its roots in the strategies liberals pursued in the first decades after World War II to promote more disciplined and ideologically unified parties. But over roughly the past fifteen years, the Republican Party has contributed more than the Democrats to the rising cycle of polarization in American politics. That's partly because the GOP has controlled a larger share of political power during that time; Democrats have not had as much opportunity to implement a philosophy of government. But it's mostly because conservatives, eager to reverse decades of liberal policies, have embraced both ends and means that accept high levels of division as the price for ambitious change. Since the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, and especially since Bush's election in 2000, the Republican Party has grown into a centrally directed, ideologically coherent institution that demands loyalty, isolates and punishes dissent, and mobilizes every conceivable resource allied with it against the other side.
Bush and his advisors greatly accelerated this process by rejecting the assumption that controlling the center of the electorate is the key to success in American politics. Instead, he has tolerated, and at times even seemed to welcome, division as the price of mobilizing his core supporters behind an aggressive agenda that splits the country and the Congress. Under Bush, the GOP has set the pace in adopting confrontational legislative tactics, tethering Congress to the White House, discouraging internal disagreement, constructing an electoral strategy that relies more on exciting its base than courting swing voters, and advancing an agenda, often on razor-thin party-line votes, that aims to meet the preferences of its supporters with as little concession as possible to those outside of its coalition.
The ferocity of this challenge rattled the foundations of the Democratic Party. During the Bush years Democratic leaders faced rising demands from their own base to abandon Bill Clinton's centrist model of governing and reconfigure the party into a mirror image of the highly partisan warrior party that the president and his political "architect," Karl Rove, has designed for the GOP. In fact, Democrats are unlikely ever to match (or even pursue) the level of centralized control and ideological conformity achieved by Republicans because they rely, as we'll see, on a much more diverse electoral coalition. But Democrats are moving fitfully in the same direction, as more party activists push their party to emulate the Republican model. The Democrats have not been the principal engine of polarization, but they have not been immune to its effects either.
On some fronts, the change in the political environment can be measured quantitatively. On major votes, nearly all republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill now line up against each other with regimented precision, like nineteenth-century armies that marched shoulder to shoulder onto the battlefield. For the past half century Congressional Quarterly, a nonpartisan political magazine in Washington, has tracked the extent to which House and Senate members vote with a majority of their party on contested votes. Both republicans and Democrats are standing with their own party against the other on about 90 percent of the votes, a level of lockstep uniformity unimaginable only a generation or two ago. Rather than seeking to bridge their differences, the vast majority of legislators in each party now reflexively vote against any initiative that originates with the other. The table above tracks the level of party unity in congressional votes under every president since Dwight Eisenhower's second term. In both chambers, and in both parties, the trend toward a parliamentary level of loyalty is unmistakable.
The same trend toward division is evident in the way Americans look at the president. Polls over the past half century show it has become increasingly difficult for presidents to win approval from voters across party lines. Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, even Richard Nixon all attracted significant support from voters who identified with the opposite party. But since then the gap has steadily increased between the way Americans in the president's party assess his job performance and the reviews he receives from Americans in the other party. Under Bush, this difference has widened to unprecedented, almost unimaginable, heights: Bush has excited his own party and infuriated the other as much as any president in modern times.
As we'll see in Chapter 6, the trends in election results over the past several decades add to the portrait of a political system increasingly divided between stable, divergent, and antagonistic camps. Ideologically, culturally, and geographically, the electoral coalitions of the two major parties have dispersed to the point where they now represent almost mirror images of each other. As this re-sorting has proceeded, each party has established powerful regional strongholds in which it dominates the presidential vote as well as House and Senate races. Each party, in other words, is consolidating its control over a formidable sphere of influence that provides it a stable foundation of support. The flip side is that each party is losing the ability to speak for the entire nation as it loses the capacity to effectively compete in large sections of the country.
There are two dangers in examining today's conflicts between the parties and their allied coalitions. One is to ignore the similarities to the past. The second is to ignore the differences.
Many commentators who downplay the significance of today's partisan wars correctly note that there was never a golden age in American political life when statesmen entirely transcended party to advance the national interest. Politics has always been a rough game; as early as 1797, Thomas Jefferson complained that the factional disputes in the new republic were so heated, "Men who have been intimate all their lives, cross the streets to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats."
But the level of conflict between the political parties today, the intensity of their disagreements, and the difficulty they face in reaching reasonable compromises is not typical either. American politics is evolving toward greater partisanship and ideological rigidity than it experienced through most of the twentieth century, through in many respects it is moving along a track that is taking it back to the future.
This book will argue for a new way of understanding the cycles of conflict and cooperation between the parties. it will show that relations between the two parties have moved through four distinct phases over the history of modern American politics, a period that traces back roughly over the past 110 years.
The first phase, which stretched from 1896 through 1938, saw the parties pursue highly partisan strategies for governing in a period of sharp party conflict. This era, which will be explored in Chapter 2, was the period in modern American political life most like our own, and in many ways the political system today is re-creating the advantages and disadvantages of that time.
The second (the subject of Chapter 3) saw an erosion of partisan discipline that forced presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through John F. Kennedy into the longest sustained period of bipartisan negotiation in American history. This is the period that most closely approaches an ideal of cooperation across party lines. Although the political system in those years was flawed in many respects, its best aspects contain important lessons for us today.
The third period, ranging from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s, was a period of transition, in which the forces that had sustained that bipartisan system waned and the pressures for more partisan confrontation intensified. (These will be explored in Chapters 4, 5, and 6.)
The final phase, the culmination of those pressures, is our period of hyperpartisanship, an era that may be said to have fully arrived when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted on a virtually party-line vote to impeach Bill Clinton in December 1998. (Chapters 6 through 10, from different angles, will explore this period.)
The resurgence of partisanship over the past several decades confounded the expectations of political scientists in the middle to late twentieth century. Most analysts predicted that the parties might be eclipsed by television (which provides politicians a more direct relationship with voters), the ability of candidates to raise large sums of money on their own, or the rise of independent voters.
Instead we have moved into an era when partisanship at every level, from the voters to elected officials, is the most powerful force in political life. "The two political parties are really strong in a way they haven't been in years," Mehlman correctly notes. "Not strong that as the chairman of the Republican party I'm a big dog; that's not what it is. Strong in the sense that…joining a political party means something. Political parties are no longer divided along lines that are arbitrary: religion, race, what your economic status is. They are now divided along [the lines of] what your ideology is, which is much more durable. We live in an era of very strong parties."
These strong parties, as noted above, are reminiscent in many ways of the dynamic parties that anchored the age of intense partisanship around the beginning of the twentieth century. But the competition between the parties today is unique in one critical respect: In the early years of the twentieth century, the country was deeply divided but not closely divided. It was deeply divided, because a large gulf separated the priorities of most republicans and most Democrats throughout that era. But it was not closely divided, because republicans and Democrats each assembled dominant coalitions that constituted a clear majority of the country during the years when they held power. Conversely, in the period of greater bipartisan negotiation, between the late 1930s and the mid-1960s, the country was closely but not deeply divided. It was closely divided because the tendency of dozens of conservative Democrats, and a smaller number of moderate republicans, to routinely cross party lines left neither side with a reliable majority in Congress throughout this era. But it was not deeply divided, because the very instability of the system encouraged presidents from each party to pursue mostly centrist agendas.
Today America is deeply and closely divided. The ideological differences between the parties are as great as at any time in the past century. But the country is split almost exactly in half between the two sides. Deeply and closely divided is an unprecedented and explosive combination. Voters for the losing side always feel unrepresented when the other party wins unified control over government. But for most of our history those voters could look to heretics in the majority coalition (liberal republicans or conservative Democrats) who championed an approximation of their views. And in most cases—under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, or Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—the disaffected faced the reality that the other side, at that moment, represented a preponderant majority of the country. Neither was true while Republicans controlled the White House and Congress through most of Bush's presidency. Nearly 49 percent of the country voted against Bush in 2004, but few Republican leaders, inside his administration or in Congress, held views close to almost any of those voters. The size of the losing electoral coalition was much greater than in most previous periods of unified government, but their influence inside the governing coalition was smaller. For most of his presidency this dynamic allowed Bush to govern in a manner that satisfied his base while excluding perhaps a greater share of the electorate than at any previous point in American history. The operation of that system, and its consequences for Bush, the two parties, and the country, will be explored more in Chapters 7 and 8.“ Brownstein knows what he’s talking about.”
—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
—Allan Brinkley, The New York Times Book Review
“ [From] one of America’s best political journalists . . . a sparkling new book.”
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: