In part, the new Brookings Institution report on party polarization by William Galston doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. The two parties haven't been this divided since Reconstruction.
The current Congress–the 111th–is the most ideologically polarized in modern history. In both the House and the Senate, the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than is the most liberal Republican. If one defines the congressional “center” as the overlap between the two parties, the center has disappeared.
I might quibble with this a bit by pointing out that Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska has accumulated a more conservative voting record in recent years than Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. So, if one defines the "center" as the overlap between the two parties, the center is Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe.
What's kind of interesting about the full report (.pdf) is that its point of departure is a 60 year old paper by an organization called the American Political Science Association (APSA). The report was entitled Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System, and you can download it here. I haven't gotten to that yet, so my understanding of the report is only through inference provided by Galston's references to it.
The APSA seems to have had a very positive opinion of how political parties function in parliamentary systems and to have been frustrated that the two American parties lacked clarity and unity. For example, the Association felt the parties lacked effectiveness because they couldn't command loyalty from their elected members. The two parties were so ideologically diverse that they couldn't offer voters a clear choice. Without discipline they also could not really be held accountable. So, what the Association strove for was a system in which the two parties were clearly distinct from each other, and in which the party elites could compel the kind of unity that would make the parties (when in power) effective enough to enact the laws they had promised the people.
Now, in 1950, when this report was created, the Democrats had been in the White House for seventeen years and had controlled both houses of Congress for all but two of those years. But the Democrats were splitting apart.
The States' Rights Democratic Party (commonly known as the Dixiecrats) was a shortlived segregationist, socially conservative political party in the United States. It originated as a breakaway faction of the Democratic Party in 1948, determined to protect what they portrayed as the Southern way of life beset by an oppressive federal government, and supporters assumed control of the state Democratic parties in part or in full in several Southern states. The States' Rights Democratic Party opposed racial integration and wanted to retain Jim Crow laws and white supremacy. Members of the States' Rights Democratic Party were often called Dixiecrats.
And the Republicans had just lost their one brief chance to govern when the people threw the Do-Nothing Congress out of power and unexpectedly reelected Harry S. Truman as president. The problems of the country looked a lot different than what we are facing right now, but a lack of effectiveness was something both eras have in common.
Despite his energetic efforts, FDR had not succeeded in welding Democratic factions into a solidly liberal party. On the contrary, after the early wave of progressive legislation, the
alliance between northern urban and southern rural Democrats had yielded arithmetic majorities without ideological or programmatic coherence. And when liberals tried to push ahead, conservative Democrats often defected and made common cause with Republicans. Between 1938 and 1950, as Leon Epstein points out, liberals had had little success enacting their agenda.
But the key difference between then and now is that back then, when the liberals did enact their agenda, they did it with significant help from moderate Republicans. The Association saw this as muddled and confusing to the voters, but they didn't anticipate the alternative's downside. Consider the following assertion from the report:
“There is no real ideological division in the American electorate, and hence programs of action presented by responsible parties for the voter’s support could hardly be expected to reflect or strive toward such division.”
On one level, you have to wonder what they were smoking. In 1950, we were in the heart of the McCarthy Era and on the cusp of the outbreak of the Civil Rights Era. How could they say that there was no ideological division in the electorate? What about the Dixiecrats? What about all the red-baiting? And I guess that blacks simply didn't exist in their minds (they couldn't vote in half the country anyway). But their statement apparently passed the smell test, which probably reflected the confidence elites had at the time in the liberal consensus. Here's some context on what elites were thinking:
By the time the APSA report was drafted, liberal Democrats had embraced the widely-held
assumption that they could “mobilize an electoral majority, mainly in the northern states, for a party committed to a liberal program.”
Many thoughtful Republicans shared this assumption. But for them, it was a source of fear rather than hope.
In a lecture at Princeton that makes for extraordinary reading in light of what was to come, Thomas Dewey criticized conservative theorists who wanted to “drive all moderates and liberals out of the Republican Party and then have the remainder join forces with the conservative groups of the South. Then they would have everything neatly arranged, indeed.
The Democratic Party would be the liberal-to-radical party. The Republican Party would be the conservative-to-reactionary party. The results would be neatly arranged, too. The Republicans would lose every election and the Democrats would win every election.
Our modern obsession, that the reactionaries might actually win elections, wasn't thought remotely credible. And that was the flaw in their vision. The ideological blurring that allowed Jim Crow-white supremacists to caucus with intellectual eggheads and blue collar union workers may have been confusing to the voters who wanted to know what the Democrats stood for, but it divided the reactionaries and kept them far enough at bay that the liberals could prevail regardless of who was in the White House. It was no cakewalk, but liberals wound down Jim Crow without creating a second civil war.
But eventually the Republicans did what Thomas Dewey advised them not to do, and then they started (in 1980) to win elections. Ever since, the two parties have been becoming more and more distinct and offering more and more irreconcilable visions of the country to the electorate.
The Democrats should be winning every election, but look at the polls. Forget the whole be-careful-what-you-wish-for advice. Until we can break out of this nightmare, the reactionaries must be kept at bay at all costs.