here’s no doubt that America’s political parties have undergone a major transformation in the last two decades, and that we now have, for better or for worse, a center-left party and a center-right party (although at the moment, more right than center), pitted against one another, rather than the jumble of the past. The question is whether this process, which Ron Brownstein, until recently a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, calls the “Great Sorting-Out” is a bad thing, a good thing, or just a fact of life that isn’t going away.

For most establishment pundits, the situation is self-evidently bad, and Brownstein is no dissident from that consensus. In the first few pages of his bookthe most comprehensive examination yet of the trend toward strong and ideologically defined partieshe locates the explanation for all of America’s problems in the fact that both major political parties equally fail to “set boundaries on their competition” and refuse to compromise in the effort to solve those problems. Responsibility for the federal budget deficit, dependence on foreign oil, the fact that one in six Americans lack health insurance, the failure of comprehensive immigration reform, and the failure to “rebuild economic security for the middle class” lies not at the feet of anyone in power, but rather on a syndrome in which the powerless and the powerful are equally to blame.

This premise, with its comforting symmetry, is familiar, but at least since the turn of this century it’s also been demonstrably wrong. The reason we don’t have universal health care is not that the parties can’t settle their differences about how to provide it, but that one party, the one that held all the power until this year, doesn’t favor universal health insurance, and doesn’t pretend to. With a couple of newsworthy exceptions such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that party doesn’t share Brownstein’s interpretation of the problem. On this and other issues, Dick Cheney (for instance) seems quite content with things as they are.

Brownstein argues that each of the things he identifies as a problem calls for “comprehensive solutions that marry ideas favored by one party and opposed by the other.” On the budget, he says that Democrats would reduce the deficit entirely through tax increases, Republicans would lower it through spending cuts, and that the true solutiona balance of the twocannot be achieved because each party rejects half of that solution. But in the six years that Republicans held unchecked power, they rejected both halves of Brownstein’s solution, while when Democrats were in power, they embraced both. The budget isn’t balanced now because the party that has been in power doesn’t see the problem in Brownstein’s terms: it favors tax cuts above all other priorities. On immigration, most Democrats favored the balanced solution that Brownstein favors, while only a tiny minority of Republicans (which happened to include the president but only twelve of his party’s senators) did so.

The sociology of Brownstein’s symmetric explanation for an asymmetric situation, and the fact that it is so widely shared by people whose insight into modern politics is otherwise unfailing, is as interesting as the argument itself. What makes it so appealing? Perhaps it is the culture of journalism, in which it is acceptable to have a view about the country’s problems and solutions, such as the budget or health care, but would be considered “partisan” to acknowledge that only one party shares that view. More likely it is simply an aesthetic preference, one I can fully appreciate. When I worked in the Senate in the 1990s, nothing was more exhilarating than to sit behind the dais of the Senate Finance Committee and watch the great moderates of both partiesRepublican Senators Packwood, Danforth, Chafee, and Durenberger on one arm of the dark wood horseshoe, Democratic Senators Bentsen, Mitchell, Boren, Pryor, and Breaux on the otheras they worked valiantly, and usually in vain, to find common ground in their pursuit of the national interest. But those men, especially the Republicans, were the late stragglers of what Brownstein calls the “Age of Bargaining” and they belong to history now, as relevant as Henry Clay.

Brownstein’s book has a considerable advantage over the geriatric grunts of nostalgia about the good old days that usually pass for discussion of partisanship, namely an attempt to understand the history of strong and weak parties in the United States, and particularly the evolution from what James MacGregor Burns referred to as the four parties of the middle twentieth century (the liberal and conservative wings in each party) to the ideologically coherent duality of today. Unfortunately, until it reaches the Reagan years, most of the history takes the form of potted morality lessonspartisan, bad; bipartisan, goodof a type familiar from George W. Bush’s “lessons of history” speeches. Brownstein tells us that Woodrow Wilson failed to win ratification of the League of Nations because he was just too partisan, a drastic oversimplification of a sad, complicated episode, involving Wilson’s personal insularity and pique, opposition from the left as well as the right, a rapid groundswell of postwar isolationism, and, finally, Wilson’s sudden and incapacitating illness.

Closer to the present, Brownstein gives a flawless account of the rise of the interest groups of the left and then the right in the 1960s and ’70s, but he makes a key error of interpretation. He sees these groups as worsening partisanship, whereas in fact, single-issue or single-constituency groups are antithetical to strong political parties, which are balanced coalitions of multiple issues and interests around a broadly shared but loose agenda. The Sierra Club and NARAL do more than just pull the Democratic Party to the left on environmental issues or choice. They seek to claim citizens as environmentalists or pro-choice voters, rather than as Democrats or Republicans. And because they are able toand need tofind allies on both sides of the aisle, they have allowed certain Republicans to establish a second identity as environmentalist or pro-choice, and thus have facilitated the age of bargaining by propping up the moderate wing of the Republican Party, much as the National Rifle Association was able to validate and prop up certain Democrats in conservative districts until 1994. The reemergence of strong and ideologically coherent parties has posed a challenge for these groups and the kind of politics they practiced, which thrived in the absence of strong parties. (Put simply, without Republicans like John Chafee to endorse, with their cause entirely embraced within one party’s coalition, groups like NARAL become pretty irrelevant.)

This reflects a larger misunderstanding, which is to see ideological polarization and strong parties as one and the same. Interest groups and ideological extremists such as the antitax Club for Growth seek to leverage the influence of energized or wealthy minorities, while political parties seek to win the support of a majority. A real party is a locus of considerable bargaining in itself, exemplified by the process by which Democrats came to accept pro-life candidates and a pro-life Senate majority leader in the interest of winning on a broadly shared majoritarian agenda. The Democratic Party of the ’60s and even the ’90s, which incorporated constituencies and elected officials whose differences could not be bridged by any kind of bargaining, created the ground in which these alternative political vehicles thrived, and tended to pull politics away from a broader vision of citizenship or a national agenda. A party captured by its extremes will lose its ability to construct a majority: that’s the reality that the Republicans are confronting today.

W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1903 that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.” To Brownstein it is the problem of the party line. But DuBois was right. Parties have been shifting ground, making the history of the concept of “partisanship” elusive. Other divisions, particularly the South-North divide first over race and civil rights and now over scale of government and vision of economic justice, are constants. Despite its title, The Second Civil War does not acknowledge how much this second conflict has been a legacy of the first, as well as an accident of Reconstruction that placed the most reactionary and antigovernment faction into the same unworkable party as the immigrants, workers, and ideological liberals of the New Deal coalition. For decades, a “conservative coalition” of those southern Democrats and western and midwestern Republicans stood athwart both parties using the tools of seniority and the filibuster, with all the power of a majority political party but without the accountability (procivil rights Democratic voters had no way to avoid strengthening the hold of southern committee chairs), holding back civil rights and the more expansive visions of the later New Deal. The age of bargaining that Brownstein celebrates was really about the endless and rarely successful negotiating to find a way around this unmovable bloc. When FDR or LBJ succeeded in breaking through, it was not just because they were bipartisan, but because they were able to form a de facto, temporary liberal partylike LBJ’s forty-four Democrats and twenty-seven Republicans in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Actto overcome the institutional clout of the conservative coalition.

When a committee of the American Political Science Association issued a report in 1950 calling for “A Responsible Two-Party System” like the strong and ideologically coherent parties we have today, they had as clear a sense of the problem to be solved as Brownstein does in his first chapter: for them and the reformers who followed, it was civil rights, civil rights, civil rights. They dreamed of a party that could elect a president and a congressional majority based on emphatic, coherent promises of civil rights, health care, and international engagement, and have those public preferences translate into action. Brownstein dismisses the 1950 report, saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” but in fact the report wears well and makes a still-relevant case for parties that can offer the American people a clear and engaging choice of direction, and that can be held accountable for the success or failure of that choice.

After the institutional reforms of the 1970s, the conservative coalition slowly moved into the Republican Party, where the southern heirs of the older Democratic segregationists for a time wielded power as absolutely as the James Eastlands and Richard Russells of that earlier time. (One of Brownstein’s best chapters traces the evolution of Trent Lott from Democratic staffer to Republican leader, pairing it with the story of liberal advocate Ralph Neas’s journey away from the Republican Party.) But unlike that earlier time, the voters of the whole nation were able to make a choice and, in 2006, rejected the direction that the southern reactionaries would take the country.

This evolution is fascinating, and it is not without its disadvantages. But we now have parties that offer a choice. Brownstein sees them pulling further and further away from the center, but I think that’s based on seeing the recent Republican Party and extrapolating a larger trend in both parties. A real political party, to capture a working majority, and with limited ability to work through cross-party negotiation, must capture the center. For a brief and idiosyncratic period, the Republican Party was able to exercise Karl Rove’s strategy of eschewing the center, but history will reveal that approach as one of failure, not of success. Right now, it is the Democratic Party that claims the center, which is why it is the only party that embraces the solutions that Brownstein describes in his first page as centrist solutions. I think this will change over time, and after some soul searching and crisis within the Republican Party, eventually we will have a true center-left and center-right partyboth of which meet the 1950 definition of “responsible parties”and a vibrant contest between them. It’s taken me a while to give up my attachment to the age of bargaining, but there are many advantages to this new age.

Mark Schmitt

Mark Schmitt, a frequent contributor to these pages, is director of the program on political reform at New America and a columnist for the New Republic.