How do we get from Point A to Point B?
Point A is a country muddling along, waiting for the national government to solve problems only the national government can solve. Such problems include global warming, health insurance for all, and gun violence. The central challenge, however, is creating a democratic economy that lifts all boats, provides opportunities for the talented poor to switch socio-economic places with the lazy rich, and which systematically undermines an economic aristocracy.
Here at Point A, one political party wants to solve these problems, while the other party, the Republicans, either will not, or, more likely, cannot cooperate.
Point B is a functioning two-party democracy where the two parties more or less agree about the existence of these problems and then proceede to argue about how to solve them.
What stands in the way? What prevents us from moving from Point A to Point B?
To answer this question, we need to understand how politics works as a matter of human social behavior. To do that, we must clear out the all the flat wrong ideas that guide the national discussion between the media, the academy, and the voters.
Three Wrong Ideas:
- High Broderism
- Ideology and the spectrum metaphor of politics
- Anthropomorphic parties and blocks of voters.
Part One: shifting the national discussion from High Broderism to Reality
For a very, very long time no one challenged the conventional political wisdom supplied by the religious faith known as High Broderism. Named after "Dean of the Washington Press Corps," David Broder, High Broderism holds that there is always a common sense center ground that the people want government to enact. The only thing stopping this is the personal willingness of the players. Washington works when politicians are animated by the "spirit of bi-partisanship". If Washington isn't working, it must be a lack of this spirit.
As press critic and journalism professor Jay Rosen describes it:
This belief—that political sense, as well as reality, as well as the winning strategy in most elections resides in the center, while “the extremes” on both sides are equally extreme, deluded and irresponsible—has come to be called High Broderism, after the famous Washington Post reporter and sage, David Broder, for many years the “dean” of the capital press corps. And since High Broderism is a belief, there are true believers for it within the press corps. (Note 1)
Between his Inauguration and the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama--together with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate--prevented a second Great Depression, reined in Wall Street with the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, and fulfilled a policy goal of Presidents going back to Teddy freaking Roosevelt by enacting the ACA which, but for John Roberts and the Supreme Court, would have brought about universal health insurance coverage for all Americans. The whole program was enacted over the objections of the entire Republican Party: two years of amazing progress without a single moment of bi-partisanship. (Note 2)
But the strategy of the GOP--oppose everything, contribute nothing, and claim it's all creeping Communism--paid off in the rout of Congressional Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. Facing a hostile Congress for the first time, Obama's 2011 State of the Union Address was intended to set the tone for the coming year, knowing that major progress on any issue was impossible. Broder's reaction, blaming Obama for the inaction to come, was classic:
I wanted to hear Obama urge Paul Ryan, the new Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee whose intellectually ambitious ideas have enlisted bipartisan interest, to meet soon with Kent Conrad, the retiring Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee who well knows the arcane recesses of the tax code. Together, those two could provide an agenda and a strong nudge to the respective tax-writing committees.
And I have to believe the big freshman class of legislators would welcome the opportunity to do what no predecessors since another politically divided Congress, prompted by Ronald Reagan, James Baker and the late Dick Darman, and Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, had done in 1986: clean up and simplify the tax code.
Broder criticized Obama for not reaching out to "big Freshman class" of Tea Party arsonists, elected on a wave of anti-Obamacare rhetoric and thinly veiled racism, whose only policy idea was the goal of breaking government. Because Broder just "had to believe" that that was all it would take to completely re-write the US Tax Code according to his Bowles-Simpson dreams. And the "bipartisan" interest in Paul Ryan's plan was just a lie.
David Broder was perhaps the most respected person in Washington journalism when he died two months later.
After one year and one month--the recognized wait period before ruling out a potential Zombie Broder rising from the dead to haunt heretics--two wonks cautiously stepped forward with a major advancement in bringing the discussion of our politics into the realm of reality. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann took to the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post to declare the highest heresy in High Broderism: It is not the case that "both sides do it".
Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem. ... The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
That foreshadowing paragraph was printed in April of 2012. The media wasn't ready to grapple with it at that time. But three years later came the Summer of Trump. Here's Paul Waldman in The Week at the end of July, 2015:
The Media Created Trump--And Now He Can't Be Stopped
Time for some straight talk: We in the media love Donald
So while the Republican Party is hoping desperately that somehow Trump will just go away, he's not going anywhere until he's good and ready. And as long as he can turn on the news and see his face, he's a happy man.
When Republican apologists started to blame the mainstream media for the rise of Trump, a defensive media caught up with political reality of Ornstein and Mann in a hurry.
Here's the Editorial Board of The Washington Post:
To Defend our democracy against Trump, GOP must aim for a brokered convention
Does a respect for democracy require the Republican Party to anoint its leading vote-getter? Hardly. We are not advocating that rules be broken but that they be employed to maximum effect — to force a brokered convention and nominate a conservative candidate who respects the Constitution, or to defeat Mr. Trump in some other way.
In an editorial at Business Insider, Josh Barro goes more into the weeds with the details of the mainstream media case placing the blame for Trump on the GOP:
The problem is that Republicans have purposefully torn down the validating institutions. They have convinced voters that the media cannot be trusted; they have gotten them used to ignoring inconvenient facts about policy; and they have abolished standards of discourse by allowing all complaints about offensiveness to be lumped into a box called "political correctness" and ignored.
Republicans waged war on these institutions for a reason. Facts about policy can be inconvenient — a reality-based approach would find, for example, that tax cuts increase the deficit and carbon emissions cause climate change. Acknowledging the validity of complaints about racism could require some awkward conversations with racist and quasi-racist voters in the Republican coalition.
So... Now that we are all on the same page, agreeing that the Republican Party is the center of the problem, can we successfully discuss how to solve it?
Barro puts the blame in the right place, but his reasoning is superficial and far too focused on just a few recent events. Like I said, it probably had to be this hard. Just focusing on the GOP is not enough. We've got a long road ahead...
More to come...
Footnote 1: Jay Rosen further explains the notion of High Broderism with an example from Jon Meacham of Newsweek and, lately, historical biography fame:
One of the purest statements of this ideology came from a leading heir to Broderism: Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek. This is from a November, 2009 column on Sarah Palin as a star in the Republican sky:
What Obama advisers privately refer to as “Palinism” has created a climate of ideological purity inside the GOP. To deviate from the anti-Obama line at all—that is, to acknowledge that politics is the art of compromise—risks the censure of the party. Pure ideologues will argue that this is a good thing; others like, say, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close friend of Palin’s onetime champion John McCain, think differently. Graham was denounced last week by the Charleston County Republican Party for working with Democrats on issues such as climate change; the senator’s office replied by invoking President Reagan’s belief that “elected officials need to find common ground and work together to solve difficult problems.”
Note the contempt for purists, the praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called “bipartisanship.” These signify. Meacham goes on:
Reagan realized that movement conservatives like him needed moderate conservatives to win and ultimately to govern. In 1976, in his challenge to President Ford, Reagan announced that he would run with Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, a Rockefeller Republican. It never came to that, but four years later, in Detroit, Reagan seriously considered only two men for the ticket: Ford and George H.W. Bush, both men from the middle, not the far right, of the Republican Party. It is difficult to imagine the 2012 nominee choosing a more moderate running mate, not least because there are so few moderates left in the GOP. Even those of centrist inclinations are finding it virtually impossible to work with the administration for fear of a backlash from the base.We have been to this movie before, when the unreconstructed liberals of the fading New Deal–Great Society coalition obstinately refused to acknowledge the reality that America is a center-right nation, and that Democrats who wish to win national elections cannot run on the left. We are at our best as a country when there is something approaching a moderate space in politics. The middle way is not always the right way—far from it. But sometimes it is, and a wise nation should cultivate a political spirit that allows opponents to cooperate without fearing an automatic execution from their core supporters. Who knew that the real rogues in American politics would be the ones who dare to get along?
In Meacham-land “center right” is the right place for politics to be played not because the center-rightists have the best answers to the nation’s problems but because “the reality [is] that America is a center-right nation.” Now we’re near to the beating heart of the ideology that holds our political press together. That is when journalists try to win the argument not by having better arguments but by standing closer to a reality they get to define as more real than your reality.
Footnote 2: The ACA passed with zero Republican votes in either house. The Senators from Maine joined with about-to-be-Democrat Arlen Spector to provide three GOP votes for the stimulus bill, and with about-to-lose-to-Elizabeth-Warren Scott Brown of Massachusetts to provide three GOP votes for Dodd-Frank.