Please scroll down for Part 1 of this post.
When House Majority leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to ultra-conservative David Brat, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus summed up the majority view among political pundits: “The episode offers a disturbing commentary about the poisonous, polarized state of American politics.”
I cannot agree. I don’t think “polarization” is toxic. To the contrary, as the poet William Blake once wrote “Without Contraries, No Progress.” Conflict can clarify issues, and help us move forward. Indeed, the clash of opinions is a time-honored way of testing their validity.
Do you remember the 1990s, a decade when it became difficult to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans? While Republicans headed toward the far right, Democrats moved right of center. During his second term, Bill Clinton started to sound all too much like Ronald Reagan, as he set out to “reform welfare,” forcing single mothers to go to work, even though we weren’t offering them affordable day care. After leaving the White House, Clinton reclaimed his position as a stand-up liberal, but at the time, the distinction between Democrats and Republicans was badly blurred.
Today, the difference between the two parties is clear. I wouldn’t say that Democrats are ultra-liberal, but conservatives have moved so far to the right that Democrats had no choice but to take a stand on critical issues including: global warming, gun control, the need to raise the minimum wage, and universal access to health care.
By contrast, in the 1990s, Congressional Democrats were “lukewarm” on health care reform. As Paul Starr reports in his newest book, Remedy and Reaction, Senate Finance Committee chairman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, actually stood up to say, “We don’t have a health care crisis.”
But by 2010, the crisis was obvious, and Democrats came together. Pelosi and Harry Reid marshaled the votes, and Congress passed legislation which, while far from perfect, is solidly progressive: Low-income and middle-income Americans receive the subsidies they need; insurers can no longer discriminate against people suffering from pre-existing conditions, and preventive care–including contraception–is free.There is much more work to be done, but at last, we have begun.
Since then, Congressional Democrats have not had the votes to pass much-needed legislation in other areas.
But at least President Obama is no longer the compulsive compromiser that he appeared to be during his first term in office. I see this as progress. As I have argued in the past, on some issues compromise is not an option. Too much is at stake.
On the ground,voters are as divided as their elected representatives. Politically active Democrats have begun to move left of center while Republican voters have become more conservative. The Pew Research report that I discussed in the first part of this post reveals that a decade ago, only 10% of politically engaged Republicans took a conservative stance on almost all issues. Today, 33% express consistently conservative views. At the other end of the political spectrum, almost forty percent of committed Democrats are consistent liberals, up from just 8% in 1994. The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or constantly liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. .
“As a result,” Pew reports, “ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished. “Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”.
“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.”
Is Polarization A Threat to the Nation?
Most pundits are appalled.