Friday, January 12, 2018

Ungovernable: How Partisanship Wrecked US Politics Just as George Washington Predicted

by Nomad

Trump the Partisan President

Commentator John Dickerson on a recent episode of the podcast Slate's Political Gabfest, was talking to the show's host, David Plotz, about why President Donald Trump represents something new and foreboding in American politics.
He pointed out:
"One thing we are witnessing is our first purely partisan president. The rise of partisan politics in the presidency has been increasing since 1980 for a variety of reasons. But the idea of the president who could build a coalition from members of both parties- kind of fly above the party fights and pass legislation- has been declining.
According to Dickerson, there has been a sea change in the rhetoric under Trump. There was a time when a president would, at the least, give a nod to the idea of  Americans' putting aside their differences and working together. True, most of it was less than sincere when push came to shove. 

Now, in the age of Trump, even the lip service of fairness has vanished. All pretense of the leader of the nation uniformly representing the entire nation has been abandoned.

This, says Dickerson, is
"the next step in the vast partisan split we see that both creates our political structure in Congress and in the White House and is fed by it."
While the division might not be new, it has these days reached extreme levels.
"That manifests itself in many different ways. Democrats are becoming more liberal, Republicans are becoming more conservatives and the median Democrat and the median Republican are as far apart as they have ever been."
Instead of attempting to bridge this chasm, by finding common ground among the electorate, on say, the role of government or healthcare or a fair and equitable tax plan, presidents and lawmakers appeal only to their core supporters. 

The question then becomes: Will there be a time when that gap becomes too wide ever to be bridged by any president or any Congress? What then becomes of the nation? 
Some pollsters seem to think that this is exactly where we are now.

The Unbridgeable Chasm

A Pew Research study recently backed up Dickerson's thesis.  
As Republicans and Democrats have moved further apart on political values and issues, there has been an accompanying increase in the level of negative sentiment that they direct toward the opposing party. Partisans have long held unfavorable views of the other party, but negative opinions are now more widely held and intensely felt than in the past.
The opinions of Donald Trump are both a reflection and an exacerbation of that divide. A liberal voter views Trump's policy and performance in a completely opposite way than a conservative voter.
And the same thing was true when Obama was president. And neither side can believe their ears.

Trump's overall approval ratings are at a dismal 35% (or 38%, depending on the survey). Compare that to the average presidential approval rating of 53%. Nobody could argue that these figures represent an unpopular presidency.
However, if one looks at through a partisan filter, we see a very different picture. 

The partisan gap in Trump's job approval is larger than for any president in six decades. In the Nov 6-12 survey, a staggering 83% of Republicans gave Trump a thumbs up, while only 3% of Democrats and 33% approved of Trump's performance.

That polarization is stunning and it isn't confined to the president's approval. 
About eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (81%) have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, based on an average of surveys conducted this year – with 44% expressing a very unfavorable view. Two decades ago, a smaller majority of Democrats (57%) viewed the GOP unfavorably, and just 16% held a very unfavorable view.
On the other side of the spectrum, the same pattern of highly negative attitudes prevail.
Currently, 81% of Republicans and Republican leaners have an unfavorable impression of the Democratic Party, with 45% taking a very unfavorable view. In 1994, 68% of Republicans had a negative view of the Democratic Party; just 17% had a very unfavorable opinion.
How this chasm can ever be bridged is hard to imagine. Paying lip-service to the idea of unifying Americans seems to be a fantasy or a lost cause. And that seems unlikely to change in the post-Trump era.

The effect of this polarization extends outside of the political world and into the social world. That same Pew Research study found that members of both parties say their friend networks are predominantly made up of people who are like-minded politically.

This lack of contact with the other side can affect how we perceive problems like economic inequality, immigration or minority discrimination.  Without human contact, it is much easier to fall into the trap of "Us and Them."

This division of the country didn't begin with Trump. In his 2008 bestselling book The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop observes:
Today, most Americans live in communities that are becoming more politically homogeneous and, in effect, diminish dissenting views. And that grouping of like-minded people is feeding the nation’s increasingly rancorous and partisan politics.
Eight years after those words were written and things have grown much worse. Social media- which ought to have allowed a meeting of the minds- has only amplified our possibly prejudiced ideas about the opposition. Something our enemies have used to their own advantage.

According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, nearly half of Americans got into an argument with someone (a friend, family member, coworker, etc.) about the election last year. Politics has divided nations one family, one friend, and one colleague at a time.

America, the Ungovernable

Besides making the nation despondent and essentially ungovernable, partisan politics is currently responsible for an immediate national threat that affects all Americans, regardless of party affiliation. 

What happens when a party manages- through some dubious political sleight of hand- to capture both houses of Congress and the executive branch? The opposing party can be reduced to the role of a witness rather than a participant in government. In countless ways, the parliamentary tools that allowed the minority party in Congress to be a counter-balance have been dismissed.

To name one example, earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the “nuclear option” allowing the majority party to change Senate rules so that bare majorities can overcome filibusters on Supreme Court nominations. This rendered the filibuster- a tool that Republicans often used in the past when they themselves were a minority- to become purely symbolic.

During the Obama administration, Republicans used the filibuster to an unprecedented degree to thwart the liberal agenda. And now, purely for the sake of party over principle, they want to rob the Democrats of the same well-established minority tactic.
Even if the Democrats were to become the majority party in the mid-term and beyond, it would not fix the underlying problem.

And this is only one example of how party politics has left the nation in shambles.
The other day, McConnell had the nerve to say during his traditional year-end news conference on Capitol Hill:
“I think one thing you can say about this year, it was pretty partisan. We’re gonna be looking for areas of bipartisan agreement because that’s the way the Senate is. There are only a few narrow exceptions, as all of you know, to those principles in the Senate.”
And he said all that with as straight a face as McConnell could muster.

Risks of a Partisan President 

But even the prospect of a dysfunctional one-party rule isn't the worst effect of party politics gone mad.  

So, what happens when the dominant party refuses to respond to a president who is clearly a threat to the nation? What happens when the president has been compromised by a foreign power and the party in dominance refuses to take the necessary steps to remove the man from office?

The impeachment and removal of a president depend on a balance of power - or at least, a degree of impartiality- of all members of Congress, Left or Right.
The impeachment process has been rendered ineffectual and deadlocked by party self-interests.

Yet, the corruption of the constitutional safeguards hasn't stopped there. Outside of Trump's criminal allegations, there have also been serious questions raised about his mental fitness. And those questions and concerns came from non-partisan professionals.

The moral imperative of removing the unfit president- and who would be unfit whether he was Republican or Democrat- has also suddenly disregarded solely for the sake of party supremacy.

The 25th amendment is the constitutional process for replacing the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacitation. It can never take place when party fidelity takes precedence over common sense. Republicans in Congress and the President's Cabinet colleagues have already made it clear that they would prefer to have a madman at the helm than to disgrace their party. 

The noble idea of putting principles before the party- even in order to spare the nation a greater tragedy- is very nearly extinct. It is no accident that Senator Jeff Flake could only speak his mind about his misgivings about President Trump after he had declared his retirement. He all but admitted that he would be electable only if he kept his objections to himself.
That was something he could not do. 

Admittedly this sort of monolithic consensus could be seen as the main strength of the GOP and yet, when a man like Trump comes along who will surely humiliate the Republican party, it is also a form of political party suicide.   
Furthermore, obedience to Trump is a frightening gamble with our national security, the well-being of millions of Americans and the survival of the planet.   

What George Warned Us

In his 1796 farewell address to American people, the outgoing first president George Washington offered some words of advice and warning. 

One of those warnings had to do with the danger of political partisanship. 
The "baneful effects" of  partisanship are, he said, "inseparable from our nature" because they are based on the "strongest passions of the human mind."
It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
Washington astutely noted that the alternate domination of one faction over another "sharpened by the spirit of revenge" had,  in different countries and different ages, led to horrific atrocities and ultimately resolved only by "frightful" suppression. This, in turn, could lead to a more formal and permanent despotism.

No doubt the revolution in France with its horrors of the internecine wars (regicidal, patricidal and finally fratricidal) weighed very much on his thoughts. 
Washington wrote:
The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Even without that worst-case scenario, Washington wrote, partisanship is an undesirable thing for a nation. The "common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it."
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
Read the bold-face again and it is hard not see Vladimir Putin's smile.

It's true that a certain degree of partisanship could provide a useful check on the administration of government. But only within restrained limits. George W. warned what would happen if it were allowed to run amok.
As he saw it, there was a constant danger of excess and he compared it to a bonfire which requires "a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."

With partisanship now a more-or-less permanent and irreparable problem in US politics, the first president's far-sighted concerns from 222 years ago seem fully justified and very nearly prophetic.
Washington, the seat of the Republic, is burning.  

Here's a discussion on the decline of bipartisanship in US politics. Senators Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, and Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia offer their own insights on the subject. It was sponsored by the New York Times.

Corker- the man who advocated bipartisanship- became a perfect illustration of the duplicity of the Republican party when he reversed his earlier position on Trump's tax cut. He announced that he would support his party’s controversial tax cut after last-minute changes were made to the bill that, critics say, would enrich Corker personally.
So much for principle over party.