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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.  

Originally posted to on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 07:23 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The Reactionaries Advance 2 Historic Norms (24+ / 0-)

    Aristocratic concentration of wealth and power, and masses of working poor who cling to authority and lack the ability to think and organize. Almost all our history since agriculture has been closer to this than to what today's grayhairs grew up in.

    Perhaps the difference between 1950 and today is that in 1950 we had a lethal enemy hours to minutes away. Today's American has not had a credible enemy since college grads were born.

    The interests of the reactionaries are no longer threatened by internal strife weakening us against a lethal enemy. Their businesses won't be bombed, their churches won't be torn down.

    They are free to move on the progressives AS the enemy. They've been speaking of us using the literal term "enemy" for a generation. They mean it.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 07:36:51 PM PDT

    •  Jim Hightower says it best (0+ / 0-)

      April 30, 2010 Bill Moyers and Jim Hightower discuss ''POPULISM''

      Here's what populism is not. It is not just an incoherent outburst of anger. And certainly it is not anger that is funded and organized by corporate front groups, as the initial Tea Party effort is, and as most of it is still today. Though there is legitimate anger within it, in terms of the people who are there. But what populism is at its essence is a, a just determined focus on helping people be able to get out of the iron grip of the corporate power that is overwhelming our economy, our environment, energy, the media, government. And I guess that's one big difference between real populism and what the Tea Party thing is, is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of corporations. So you can't say, let's get rid of government. You need to be saying let's take over government.

      JIM HIGHTOWER: I'm saying pretty clearly that I see the central issue in politics to be the rise of corporate power. Overwhelming, overweening corporate power that is running roughshod over the workaday people of the country. They think they're the top dogs, and we're a bunch of fire hydrants, you know? Out here in the countryside. And they can do what they want to with us. What's been missing is what can we do about it? And those people in Iowa, by the way, are not alone. There are people in Minnesota doing that, people in Oregon that I know. People in Texas. All across the country.

      It's about the long haul. And the target is not government, it's those who are pulling the strings of government, which are those corporate lobbyists and the money that the corporate executives and now corporations directly can put into our campaigns.

      Famed "people's historian" Howard Zinn also portrayed the actual populists as examples well worth following:
      "The word Populism came into being in the late 1800s, 1880, 1890, when great corporations dominated the country, the railroads, and the banks, and these farmers were victims of them. And these farmers got together and they organized north and south, and they formed the Populist movement. It was a great people's movement. And they sent orators around the country, and they published thousands of pamphlets. And it was, I would say, a high moment for American democracy."

      Stop whining and do something NOW

      "Trickle down economics 101: They get the golden parachute, we get the golden shower"

  •  With all the polarization and the generally poor (6+ / 0-)

    opinion most people have of goverment, the divide in thisw country does not so much seem to be along the lines of party, but incumbancy.  That is, the great so-called independent unwashed voter--thsoe who vote, anyway--appear to be more interestedin registering their upset than in any solid ideological consistency.  

    Personally, I do not believe that it is too good, for it forces a watering down of liberal principles.  Conservatives seem to have that damned if I care attitude that has served then fairly well of late--until the country sees they can't govern, while liberals seem all too willing to compromise in order to hold sway with the independents.  

    Neither seems to be a terrible effective strategy for the country.

  •  What the report didn't account for (16+ / 0-)

    was the rise of the religious right.  That was the final piece in the reactionaries' puzzle ... and how they were able to solidify their hold on the South.  How else do you explain LA-05, one of the poorest districts in the nation, giving Bush and McCain landslide margins?

    GOP=Grand Obstructionist Party

    by Christian Dem in NC on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 07:39:14 PM PDT

    •  Easy (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wom Bat, OldAthena

      the Dixiecrats turned into Republicans, and are reborn as the Tea Baggers.

      •  mochajava13 is right -- (0+ / 0-)

        -- and I fear that the Dixiecrat/TeaBagger political lineage has gained enough power -- at both the state and federal level -- to reclaim control of government.  

        Read Stephen Budiansky's The Bloody Shirt:  Terror After Appomattox to learn how the South won Reconstruction and gained control of Congress for the next 100 years.  The values, and many of the techniques, of the post-civil War Confederate 'Democrats' are, IMO, being recapitulated by today's far-right extremists.

        On the one hand, I am somewhat comforted by the fact that the extremists (ie, TeaBaggers) make up only about 18% of the population.  But then I remember that the Pareto Principle states that 20% of any group can lead and control the actions of the whole.  And the disparate factions within the extremist right share one value:  to lessen and/or destroy the power of the Federal government, unless they can make it serve their ends.

        Which leads me to believe that voter registration, GOTV, and filling state legislatures with actual Democrats (not Blue Dogs) is vital to our country's future.

  •  Nixon and "Southern Strategy" is the root. (6+ / 0-)

    GOP's only means to electoral success is based on racism, Nixon's Southern Strategy lays out how GOP has to be the party of Southern racism to have an electoral base in the US.

    The end result of this race based strategy is GOP core voters screaming for violence against our first black president. The crazy GOP birther claims that a black man is not really an American is the direct result of GOP's Southern Strategy of racism.

    Nothing directly attacked the GOP's Southern Strategy more than Obama as president. The GOP response to Obama is built on racism which is used to attack all his policies.

    Racism, religion and corporate greed are the cornerstones of GOP electoral success with the corporate money funding the racism and religion which it uses for the massive deficits which transfer wealth to the corporations and the wealthy via tax schemes and failure of government regulation.

  •  Of course the moderate Republican of the (14+ / 0-)

    1950s would probably place among the most liberal 25 percent of Congress today, so of course we have polarization. Tax policy that was supported during the Republican Eisenhower administration is far to the left of even most Democrats today. The ideas of the John Birch society, rightly ridiculed in those days, would be right at home among the vast majority of Republicans. And the right-wing Chicago-school social Darwinist economic policy was considered batshit insane among the Establishment up until the mid-to-late 1970s, as that type of reactionary ideology was discredited with the Great Depression. Because our country has moved so far to the right, especially in economic matters, and an increasingly corporatist, bought and paid for media, amplifies that voice and emphasizes conflict over cooperation, we get the polarization in spades.

    "Trickle down economics 101: They get the golden parachute, we get the golden shower"

    by NoMoreLies on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 07:54:55 PM PDT

  •  Night after night (15+ / 0-)

    I watch the local news here in Oklahoma City.  The spots with the state legislators explaining why they think a transvaginal ultrasound is necessary to protect life, why they want to enact legislation just like Arizona to stop "illegals", why they want a law to "opt out" of HIR, and on and on.  And all I hear are racist hatemongers who cherish their own ignorance, who bow in deference to the plutocracy--against their own interests--and I am stunned at how far away they are from the reality I know.  I have nothing in common with these folks except carbon.

    "When your heart skips a beat stay on your feet, don't throw that moment away!"--Rob Fetters, 'Fear is Never Boring'

    by BigOkie on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 07:54:57 PM PDT

  •  So according to Brookings (15+ / 0-)

    What accounts for the momentary lucidity among the electorate that caused it to accept candidate Obama's message of restoring the middle class? The "tax cuts for 95% of Americans message resonated." Joe the Plumber's pseudo-populism did not sway the electorate much. Why did that electorate (even those who did not eventually vote for Obama) support healthcare reform by 65% up until July 2009?

    I think the polarization is the result of relentless one-sided rightwing media bombardment, with no semblance of fair refereeing from the MSM. The crazies have always existed in this country from Fr. Coughlin to the Birchers but the reason they remained on the fringes is that their voice did not find welcoming room in the public square. Heck even a few years ago, Allen's Macaca moment derailed his senate bid in Virginia. Today Allen looks like a choirboy by comparison to the wingnuts now from Bilbray to the "microchip illegals" nut who can say the most outlandish things and get rewarded instead with an appearance on all the cable networks, not just FOX

    The disintegration of information platforms into unadulterated propaganda outlets is the main difference today. So the politicians on the Repug side have had to play to this high decibel audience.

    The media landscape is now very very flat from online to newspaper outlets, all nonsense gets similar weighting in importance and dissemination.

    It is very scary. We cannot talk to one another across party lines and live to tell about said conversation. Look at what happened to Charlie Crist simply because he appeared at a townhall with President Obama?

    "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them." -- Pres. Obama (1/20/2009)

    by zizi on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 07:56:49 PM PDT

    •  I think you hit the nail on the head (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mike101, mochajava13, greengemini, sherijr

      crazy = airtime/column inches

      What happened to critical thinking skills, how did we become so dumb as a nation?

      "We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope."

      by mydailydrunk on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 08:07:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Infotainment? We talk about celebrities and (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        the latest pop scandal. That stuff used to be hidden and since it is our wont to talk...we'd talk about more substantial topics.?

        -- We are just regular people informed on issues

        by mike101 on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 09:12:26 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  How our nation became dumb -- (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        There are a lot of good comments above outlining American domestic & foreign policy from Eisenhhower forward.  One element has been omitted -- how our nation became dumb.  Here's my view, as a comparative oldster:

        Post-WWII, American had to rebuild from both the depression and the war (in which both my parents served).  The GI bill made a lot of things possible for ordinary citizens during the 1950s, including the possibility of a college education for anybody, not just former service members.

        But there was a Cold War on, and American was frantic to compete with the 'Reds' in every arena.  Then Sputnik went up (1957, I think) when I was just starting first grade.  The government -- practiced at responding with military speed and precision at mobilizing resources nationwide -- realized that, in order to compete in space, America had to educate every child to his/her best potential.

        My school years were marked by extensive testing at the beginning and end of every school year -- not today's 'teach to the test,' but wide-ranging tests of aptitudes as well as proficiencies.  Throughout grade school, we were sifted by our results and routed into academic prep or 'normal' classes, with material for gifted students incorporated into the academic prep classes.  By sixth grade, I the academic prep students had been sorted so well that, from seventh grade onward, I was in classes with the same student until graduation.  

        Our junior high and high school classes were at the level of a fancy prep school today -- and even the 'normal' kids were as articulate and literate as most college grads today.  We had been taught critical thinking and analysis, and we could speak and write (and read!).  

        What happened?  This generation of sutdents became not just the leaders, but the ordinary citizens, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam Protest era.  Our smartness endangered the (Republican) rule of government.

        So what happened?  Well, I blame Regan.  At the same time that ketchup became a vegetable, the GI Bill's college-for-all was changed to 'no college for you!' unless you joined ROTC.  This coincided with the rise of the Young Republicans, and with the deconstruction (de-funding) of schools.

        So today, the average reading comprehension level is less than that of an eighth-grader from my generation.  You can't have an informed citizenry engaging in political discourse with an eighth-grade education.

        Or wait a minute, yes you can:  If what you are aiming at is Tea Baggers whose discourse is mis-spelled signs and childish invective.

        •  But you only see how well it went for you (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          not how lousy it was for those who were not fast tracked.

          I saw how it was in jr. high and high school and as a teacher  not too many years after. Then I taught for a while in a school so small that there were only one class for each grade. there the brighter, more advance students could work with the others and both groups flourished.

          I had a dear friend who got tracked into vocational ed track; yeah, that's what they called it. He wasn't even doing that well in it. Once when we were talking he said "well I'm too dumb for that" about something. I told him "no you're not; you are highly intelligent. I couldn't stand you otherwise." We talked more about it but his school standing defined him to himself.

          Eventually he dropped out and joined the Coast Guard which gave him and the other recruits an IQ test. He got the top score of 160. So they had him take an individual test after that and he scored 158, essentially the same.  

          He was probably bored to death in those classes; he would likely have been as bored as I was in the advanced track.   Neither of us finished high school!

          Schools were better but not because of tracking. There are many factors but one part was that there were so many different courses that have been cut now such as art, music and phys ed; civics and more on American history — though that was sugar coated.

          But the quality of education varied greatly. If you were middle class white it was usually fair to great. But if you were "colored" any shade it was almost uniformly poor. And there was rarely any public education for the handicapped. If you had hidden disabilities you were "bad" or lazy or whatever label they wished to apply.

          It was a more polite time. Speech was more restrained. One of the biggest changes was with integration. That directly drove the rise of the quickly thrown together Christian school movement with its varied parochial outlooks and of course limited educational exposure. Starting around 1958 they mis—educated masses in the south and other areas. Those they educated became parents of the 80s' children and leads right into what we have today.

          "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." - Rabbi Tarfon

          by samddobermann on Mon May 03, 2010 at 04:02:15 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  You're right that MSM only portrays one side (0+ / 0-)

      and that side is whatever sells.  Crazy sells.  Even better is crazy people going at each other, Jerry Springer style.  Reasoned debate about the issues (where people agree and come to a consensus) is boring and doesn't sell.  So, bring on the extremists in any political debate so that there will be some kind of entertainment.  If there is some kind of news in the issue, great.  But the main concern is to stir people's emotions so that people continue to watch.  

  •  keeping them at bay (6+ / 0-)

    would be a lot easier if we did a better job of revealing them for what they are. such as fully investigating their crimes. and if we did a better job of delineating our differences. such as putting people first, rather than seeking subsidized market based solutions.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 07:58:47 PM PDT

  •  One party believes in the wholesale destruction (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Justus, appletree

    of the public sector and the Federal Government, the other does not.

    Yeah, bipartisanship is as likely to be discovered as the fucking Sasquatch at this point, but I am sure David Broder will dream of Sasquatch every night after he cries himself to sleep on a pile of Corporate $

    I work for PeanutButterPAC, join us and help fight for Progress!

    by MinistryOfTruth on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 08:01:04 PM PDT

  •  the culture/religion wars hide out in... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sherijr, ohmyheck, MinistryOfTruth

    the political strategies of the republican party.  Those americans who cannot tolerate a country where minorities, women, gays etc. speak truth to power, find solace in Fox news, Tea Party events, and republican pandering.

  •  Democrats DID win (8+ / 0-)

    the last 2 elections in unprecedented back to back wave elections after American had a chance to see what the fringe element that took over the Republican Party was like with power in their hands.

    What is really scary is that an even fringier fringe has taken over one of the 2 main parties from that bunch.

    Economics however always plays a large role in electoral politics. If Democrats turn around the economy between now and November then they'll win again. If they don't then they won't and a truly scary bunch of people will gain power in this country.

    Personally I am very much in favor of a multi-party, proportional representation system.

    Small fringe parties might gain leverage in coalition forming but they don't get a chance to take over a major party and hide behind a veneer of moderate respectability. The fringe tends to stay on the fringe and they get negotiated with as a last option by the larger, more moderate parties that retain power and always have the option of negotiating instead with the less scary small parties on their way to forming majority coalitions.

    Both of our 2 major parties are coalitions anyhow. In our system it is hidden and muddy and hard for the average person to understand exactly where the lines are and what the horse trading is and who exactly is calling the shots and why.

    In a multi-party, proportional representation system much more of that horse trading and coalition building is done right out in the open. The lines are more distinct and are therefore more understandable for the average person.

    And... more voices get better representation for more points of view... and a better chance of getting a piece of power and legislation proportionate to their support amongst the populace. Unlike in our system where large segments of the population get ignored completely and/or taken for granted.


    Andrew - Time to reboot the New York State Senate

    by Andrew C White on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 08:16:06 PM PDT

  •  The Republicans got their (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mochajava13, greengemini, ThAnswr, Wom Bat

    Conservative to Reactionary Party, when do we get our Liberal to Radical Party?

    "Take it back, take it back. Oh no you can't say that. All of my friends are not dead or in jail." John Prine

    by high uintas on Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 09:50:52 PM PDT

  •  This is not my beautiful house. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lurker123, mooshter

    This is not my beautiful wife.

  •  Knee-jerk defense of every policy (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and decision that is made by Democratic leadership is part of the problem, IMHO.

    And there are a hundred other reasons.  Most of them are related, IMHO, to the fact that this country is in crisis and we have leaders who are not behaving like we're in a crisis.  Case in point, it's been a year and a half since the near crash of the global economy, caused by Wall St., and our government is just getting around to doing something about changing the laws for them.  I could go on, for hours.

  •  Several other factors (0+ / 0-)

    I've been thinking about what the original constitution provided for and what we have now, especially regarding the limitation of powers provisions of the constitution.

    The first major modification of the government was the post civil war amendments that extended the Bill of Rights to cover state governments as well as limiting what Conggress could do.

    The next major change was passing an unlimited income tax.

    The first change allowed Congress to control state governments in any area that could be remotely linked to the Bill of Rights.  It was these amendments that gave the Supreme Court the grounds for disallowing state governments to structure themselves with a house representing populations and a senate representing counties or similar political subdivisions within the state.

    The income tax law gave the federal government unlimited funds with which they could buy state compliance with federal programs under the threat of withholding fund sharing.  This is the way the Feds gained control over local school districts, state traffic laws and many other aspects of what the constitution said should be preserved to state governments.

    Isn't it strange that the party of the rich is viewed by many as the party of God?  

    Think of what Christ taught concerning rich people getting to heaven or of our responsibilities towards each other.  If we are to care for and about each other, it is no wonder that the Bible says that it is harder for the rich to get to heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

    Of course, the Republicans are viewed as the party of God because of their speeches against abortion and "abnormal" sexuality as well as their support for creationism.

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