Hyperpartisanship is a symptom of distrust in government, not its cause

Dan Balz has a story at the Washington Post about the “new normal” of hyperpartisanship and political dysfunction:

A new report from the Pew Research Center lays out the evidence in clear and unrelenting detail. The survey of attitudes at the close of the year offers a reminder to political leaders, and especially prospective presidential candidates, that among their biggest challenges ahead will be finding ways to begin to restore faith and confidence in the political system.

Four in 5 Americans say the country is more politically divided than in the past. Although that is no worse than it was two years ago, it is far gloomier than it used to be. Scroll back to the early days of President Obama’s tenure in the White House, and the differences between then and now are particularly stark.

During George W. Bush’s second term as president, a period of rancor and division because of the Iraq war, almost 7 in 10 Americans said the country was more divided than it had been.

After Obama’s election in 2008, there was a brief thaw in attitudes. At that moment, as many people said the country was not more divided than in the past as said it was, hardly a consensus that the country was heading toward a period of greater unity, but at least a sign of optimism.

Balz seems to assume implicitly the partisan rancor is the cause of Americans’ lack of faith in government. But that assumption doesn’t really have support. Certainly, the brief optimism among the public about potential political consensus in the wake of Obama’s election in 2008 didn’t reflect a marked improvement in voters’ trust in government after the Wall Street meltdown.

Voters are angry not because Democrats and Republicans are yelling at each other, but because problems aren’t getting solved. Wages aren’t going up, tuitions keep rising, our commitments in the Middle East aren’t getting disentangled, climate change is getting worse, inequality is increasing, and people don’t feel any more secure economically. People are angry about all of these things, and they want solutions.

It’s certainly true that people expect the two parties to “compromise” to achieve solutions. After all, that’s how people experience the process of problem-solving in their everyday lives: you weigh the best ideas from every perspective, and then make choices that don’t necessarily make everyone happy, but that attempt to incorporate everyone’s best ideas and give everyone something they want. People want Congress to compromise not because compromise is so great, but because in their experience compromise is what solves problems.

But that model of problem-solving isn’t operative in today’s Congress, nor is it possible. Democratic and Republican solutions to most problems are directly oppositional to one another. You cannot take the “best ideas from both sides” on immigration when one side wants to deport everyone, the other side wants to provide legal status. You cannot take the “best ideas from both sides” on healthcare when one side wants government-funded universal healthcare, and the other side wants to remove all government support and barter with chickens for MRIs if necessary. You cannot take the “best ideas from both sides” on Wall Street reform when one side wants to break Citigroup into pieces to protect consumers and taxpayers, and the other side wants to let Citigroup gamble with hundreds of billions of dollars in derivatives on the taxpayer dime.

Republicans and Democrats often cannot even agree on what the problem even is. How can you compromise on climate change when one side knows the fate of human civilization depends on reducing carbon emissions, and the other side believes that God would never let human beings affect His climate?

In Washington, the only sorts of consequential bills that get broad bipartisan support tend to be deleterious to the public interest but beneficial to the wealthy elite. The AUMF to invade Iraq was a broad bipartisan bill. So was the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that deregulated Wall Street. So was NAFTA. So were the Bush Tax Cuts and No Child Left Behind. When the public says it wants politicians to “compromise”, they almost certainly do not mean more wars, more Wall Street giveaways, more harmful trade deals, more tax cuts for the rich and more test-based education.

No, Balz is putting the cart before the horse. Hyperpartisanization is occurring because voters want to see problems solved and don’t trust the status quo in government to solve them. Two halves of the country have very different ideas about what the solutions should look like, and even what the problems are.

There is no sense in which a Tip-n-Ronnie era of bipartisan feelings would lead to more trust in government as long as the middle class continues to erode, Congress appears to be in bed with Wall Street, and both the economy and world at large seem to be getting more unstable.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.