Can Americans Agree ... On Anything?
By Nick BryantOctober 17, 2012
In his reelection speech, Barack Obama proclaimed that “the best is yet to come” for America. But as Nick Bryant argues in this October essay, the States may be too divided to agree on even that.
For the burgeoning ranks of American declinists, those chroniclers of the country’s national decay and global waning, Campaign 2012 has not so much provided additional footnotes as entire new chapters.
What fun they will have with the “Santorum surge”, two words few expected to see side by side given that the former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum — who is known for equating homosexual sex with incest — lost his bid for re-election in 2006 by a crushing 18 points, the biggest margin of defeat for any incumbent in over two decades. How they will mock the rise of another fringe candidate, Herman Cain, a little-known former pizza executive, unable to field the most elementary foreign-policy questions, who briefly led the Republican pack even though his quest for the White House started out as little more than a book tour.
Still more laughable was the fall of the Texan Governor Rick Perry, whose anti-government message lurched into slapstick when he failed to recall one of the three federal departments he intended to put out of business. “Oops,” the tortured expression his brain freeze would allow, might even serve as a useful heading for a chapter that would also include the improbable rise of other early front-runners in a weak field, such as Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and the disgraced former Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In the hands of a declinist author, the campaign performance thus far of Barack Obama would be especially malleable, for his election four years ago was supposed to personify not just America’s capacity for renewal but also its exceptionalism. “In no other country on earth is my story even possible,” he boasted during his “star is born” speech at the 2004 Democratic convention — a statement that now cuts both ways. The restless vigour of his 2008 campaign has given way to something languid and directionless. The audacity of hope has been superseded by the Big Bird ad. Up until his more energized performance in the second debate, he had appeared before us in amputated form; or as a faded poster, to borrow the Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s vivid line from the GOP convention. However, would not declinists also point to Ryan himself as the poster boy for the kind of hard-line, obstructionist Republican politics that have sapped the President’s energy and worsened the gridlock on Capitol Hill?
From national renewal to racial healing. From ending difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to halting America’s global slide. From averting a second Great Depression to fixing “Fucksnutsville”, to use his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s vivid description of modern-day Washington. So many hopes were vested in the Obama presidency that anti-climax was unavoidable. Just as he seemed fated to win the presidency in 2008, he also seemed doomed to disappoint. Any expectation that he could usher in a new era of post-partisanship proved just as as fantastical as the notion that his election would herald a new age of post-racialism.
If anything, the country is more radicalised and “racialised”. The term describes how formerly non-racial issues, from healthcare to public perceptions about the breed of the “First Pet” (a Portuguese water dog) have come to be viewed through the prism of Obama’s skin colour. America is incontrovertibly more polarised and partisan. A study published by the Pew Research Center in June found the country was more divided than at any stage over the past 25 years — which is as long as the survey has been running. For the first time, a majority of Republicans now describe themselves as conservatives, while a majority of Democrats describe themselves as liberal. According to Pew, partisanship is now the most divisive force in American life — more so than gender, age, race or class.
If the political map of America is rendered now in even deeper shades of red and blue, it is not simply Obama’s doing, but part of a much wider malaise. Washington’s dysfunction now stands in the way not only of presidential greatness but also of basic good governance. Whoever wins this election will have to work within a system that is so badly broken that it may be impossible to mend. As for the breach between the two main parties, it looks beyond the point of repair. This is why present-day politics offers such a rich seam for those who believe the age of American hegemony is over: it once had a political model that largely worked, and two parties that, to a surprisingly large degree, worked together.
AHEAD OF THE 1960 US ELECTION, the liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was so alarmed that voters were finding it hard to distinguish between the Republican and Democratic parties that he felt compelled to pen a short polemic: Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?
In it, Schlesinger dutifully delineated the points of divergence, but the truth was there weren’t that many. The politics of the 1950s had been marked just as much by consensus as division. Washington’s biggest schism was to be found not between the two major parties, but within the Democrats, where progressive lawmakers vied with southern white supremacists. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the leading Republican of the day, was a moderate conservative. He was also the architect of the biggest single government infrastructure project in US history: the construction of the interstate highway system. The foremost Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Texan mentor House Speaker Sam Rayburn, regularly came in for criticism — not for blocking Eisenhower’s legislative agenda, but for lending it too much support. Bipartisanship, rather than being the exception, was the norm.
At the start of the Sixties, the future of the GOP seemed to belong to progressive Republicans, like Nelson Rockefeller, the then Governor of New York, and George Romney, who in 1962 won election as Governor of Michigan. Liberal Republicanism, a phrase that now seems not only outdated but also oxymoronic, was in the ascendancy. When the Republican high command carried out a post-mortem of its 1960 defeat, the conclusion was that Nixon had come across as too right-wing. Prior to Kennedy’s assassination, as he eyed up the possible Republican field for 1964, the politician he most feared was Romney, precisely because he was so moderate.
By the mid-1960s, the civil-rights revolution had started to upend the political topography of America, and change the character of the Republican Party. Segregationists, who believed the Democratic Party had deserted them by passing laws that killed off Jim Crow, started to defect to the GOP. In 1964, Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Senator bitterly opposed to civil-rights reforms that moderates in his party proudly co-sponsored, harnessed this wave of white rage to win the Republican presidential nomination. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he proclaimed in his famous acceptance speech at the 1964 convention. “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
It is a measure of the party’s recent radicalisation, however, that even Goldwater would now be unacceptable to the religious right. In a party that has become more socially conservative, theocratic, doctrinal and militant, the Arizonian’s pro-choice and pro-gay rights views would mark him out as a moderate.
The new Republicanism also represents a break with the Reagan tradition. The conservative lionisation of “The Gipper” overlooks his bipartisanship with a Democratic Congress and his belief in the now heretic notion that America’s debt problem should be solved through raising taxes as well as by cutting spending. No one was more critical of the congressional brinkmanship that risked a government default than Reagan. Small wonder that Jeb Bush recently lamented that Reagan and his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, would have a “hard time” in the modern GOP because of their “record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground”.
Reagan also understood the dual narrative of the American story, which is both individualistic and communitarian, according to the American political theorist EJ Dionne, whose new book, Our Divided Political Heart, chronicles the polarisation of political debate. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who rejected the notion of society, Reagan, though hardly a centrist, spoke of “family, work, neighbourhood”. His most celebrated political advertisement, Morning in America from his 1984 re-election campaign, was “warm, communitarian, and resolutely local”. Nor did Reagan try to dismantle the welfare safety net constructed during Roosevelt’s New Deal. To have done so would have represented an attack on what Dionne has called “the long consensus”: the time-honoured belief, reaching back to the founding days of the republic, which combines support for limited government but also active involvement. In blunt contradiction, the new Republican mindset emphasises “radical individualism with a loathing for government”.
The conservative mainstream’s mistake, argues Dionne, has been its willingness to embrace the Tea Party, with its extreme interpretation of the US Constitution. Tea party activists have projected anti-government connotations onto the document that are found neither in its spirit nor its wording.
Indeed, their narrow reading of America’s founding credo would “prohibit or restrict activities that the federal government has undertaken for a century or more”. The “consensus that guided our politics through nearly all of the 20th century is broken”, he argues. “Middle-ground politics has become impossible.”
The dysfunction is most evident on Capitol Hill. Though the Founding Fathers deliberately designed a legislative system enabling a well-organised minority to thwart the majority, not since the days of the Civil War has negative statecraft been used so stubbornly and destructively. What were intended as checks and balances have become roadblocks and vetoes. The use and abuse of filibusters, and the threat of them, to block legislation and appointments is especially harmful. Between 2009 and 2010, cloture, a guillotine motion aimed at halting filibusters, was invoked 63 times, more than the total for between 1909 and 1982. Now a party needs a super-majority of 60 votes in the Senate, a rarity on either side of the aisle, to defeat a filibuster and enact its legislation unhindered.
Building this kind of super-majority in the Senate, or even a simple majority in the House of Representatives, has never been more difficult, because the parties have never been more polarised.
While there used to be considerable ideological overlap between moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, a grouping called the “Blue Dogs”, now there is little shared ground, and there are few remaining “Blue Dogs”. In 2010, the National Journal, for only the second time since it started studying the voting records of lawmakers, found that no moderate Republican was more liberal than the most conservative Democrat. Ron Brownstein, one of Washington’s more seasoned journalists, called it a “new peak of polarisation”.
If anything, Congress is set to become even more muscularly partisan, through depletion in the ranks of moderates. This trend has been particularly pronounced on the Republican side of the aisle. Of the 27 moderate GOP Senators who populated the Senate in 2007, Nate Silver of The New York Times predicts that only six will return to Congress next year. Some, like Olympia Snowe, the Senator from Maine, are retiring largely out of frustration at the rising adversarial mood. In announcing her surprise retirement, Snowe bemoaned the “atmosphere of polarisation”. As if to underscore her point, Rush Limbaugh celebrated her departure, saying it was like seeing a Democrat leave the Senate. Senator Joe Lieberman, another member of that fast-dwindling breed, the north-eastern moderate, is also stepping down. Like Snowe, he complained of the “perpetual partisan tug of war”. The death this week of Arlen Specter is another reminder that moderate ranks are being decimated. “As the Republican party has moved farther and farther to the right,” he said, in defecting to the Democrats in 2009, “I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy”.
Most portentous of all is the removal of Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, one of the GOP’s most respected elders and pragmatic lawmakers. In May’s Republican primary, the 80-year-old veteran, who has served with distinction in the Senate since 1976, was defeated by a Tea Party insurgent, Richard Mourdock. Lugar was famed for reaching across the aisle. As Mourdock indicated on Fox News shortly afterwards, his is a very different notion of cross-party cooperation: “I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.” Mourdock’s approach speaks of one of the noticeable trends in Washington politics since the beginning of the Clinton administration: of how the character of the Senate has come to resemble the antagonistic mood of the House.
Gerrymandered congressional districts, which have pushed up the incumbent re-election rate to nearly 90 per cent, have made the lower chamber angrier still, since the main threat to most lawmakers comes from insurgents within their own party rather than from Republican or Democratic opponents.
Those who stray from the partisan or ideological path have been especially vulnerable to primary challenge. Moreover, the infusion of unrestricted, big money has heightened partisan discipline and ideological conformism. The Super-PAC “Club for Growth,” for instance, has not only lavishly funded the campaigns of unadulterated conservatives, but also targeted moderates who appear on its RINO (Republicans in Name Only) Watch list.
The broken-politics thesis has been articulated most robustly by two of Washington’s most respected long-time observers, Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein of the right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. The deterioration they have chronicled is evident from the titles of their ever more gloomy studies. In 2006 they published The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track. Next, in 2011, came a follow-up, The Far More Broken Branch.
This year, they brought out It’s Even Worse Than You Think: How the American Constitution Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.
Most of the blame, they argue, lies with the Republican Party, which they describe as “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.
The handling of America’s debt crisis, say Mann and Ornstein, underscores all that is wrong with Washington. They have singled out one particularly squalid episode. It came in January 2010, when the Senate voted on a resolution to create a bipartisan deficit-reduction task force, named the Conrad-Gregg Budget Commission after its Democratic and Republican architects. “This proposal is our best hope for addressing the out-of-control spending and debt levels that are threatening our nation’s fiscal future,” the Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell said when first the commission was mooted.
Then, only a few months later, he and other Republican co-sponsors, including John McCain, abruptly withdrew their backing for the commission. Obama had thrown his support behind it, and the GOP leadership was intent on depriving him of a political victory. McConnell and McCain, along with other Republicans, found themselves in the surreal position of voting against a resolution that they themselves had co-sponsored.
Ultimately, Obama established a bipartisan debt task force through executive order, thus circumventing Congress. But when the Bowles-Simpson Commission delivered its report in 2010, the President did not embrace its findings, even though many Democrats believed they could form the basis of a genuine bipartisan solution. Through intransigence on both sides, the impasse over the deficit almost led to a government shutdown and the first default in US history. It showed the extent to which brinksmanship has replaced bipartisanship. Indeed, Washington politics now appears to be conducted always at the precipice. As a result, America lost its triple-A credit rating and the reputation of Congress slumped even further. In October, last year, lawmakers received their lowest ever approval rating, a measly nine per cent — an triple-E rating.
The same rancour accompanied the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”, as it has come to be known. Rather than negotiate with the White House to shape and alter its provisions, the Republican leadership pursued a strategy of blanket opposition. Not a single GOP Senator leant support. They had come to view “Obamacare” as an electoral weapon with which to win back the House of Representatives at the 2010 mid-term elections, reduce the Democratic majority in the Senate and sow the seeds for Obama’s eventual eviction from the White House. As Mitch McConnell told National Journal magazine in 2010, the “single most important thing” was to restrict Obama to just one term.
The healthcare debate also showed the extent to which what Dionne calls the “philosophical boundaries” have shifted. Republicans likened Obama’s plan to European-style “socialism”, even though it was not dissimilar to the GOP alternative to “Hillarycare” proposed in the early 1990s. Besides, its model was “Romneycare” from Massachusetts.
Crisis might ordinarily have led to more consensus. However, the two national convulsions of the past decade, the attacks of 9/11 and the global financial crisis, have failed to produce any lasting mood of political unity. The patriotic bipartisanship witnessed in 2001, and epitomised by George W. Bush being hugged on the floor of the House by the then Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, proved fleeting.
Following the fall of Baghdad, Democrats soon started rejecting the Bush administration’s martial conservatism. As for the GFC, it has exposed deep ideological divisions over the regulatory role of government, and contributed to the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, both of which have pulled their parties further right and leftward, respectively.
Both Bush and Obama have been state-of-emergency presidents, but they have also been the most divisive of leaders. Gallup has a useful measure of polarisation: the discrepancy between a president’s approval rating from registered Republicans and Democrats. It has compiled this data since the early 1950s, and Bush and Obama account for eight out of 10 of the most polarised years.
The fierce mood of anti-incumbency among voters, a powerful side-effect of the present malaise, only worsens the crisis. “In never-ending efforts to defeat incumbent office-holders,” write Mann and Ornstein, “the public is perpetuating the source of its discontent, electing a new group of people who are even less inclined to or capable of crafting compromise or solutions to pressing problems.”
TO SEE A WAY THROUGH THE TOXIC cloud currently engulfing Washington, various commentators and academics have engaged in blue-sky thinking aimed at improving the political air quality. Admiring of the Australian electoral system, Norm Ornstein has championed compulsory voting. It would end the “immense influence” of “the extreme, ideologically driven bases of the two major parties”, reduce the importance of wedge issues, such as guns, gays and abortion, and compel politicians to focus on larger issues, such as the economy and education, which “drive the voters in the middle.” As Ornstein well knows, however, “mandatory voting has no serious chance of being enacted in the United States” where, as the healthcare debate showed, mandates of any kind provoke a near visceral reaction.
From holding elections on weekends to simplifying registration, various proposals have been aimed both at boosting turnout and curbing voter-suppression tactics. Campaign finance reforms are regularly touted, although, as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling indicated, it is hard to finesse new legislation that would withstand legal scrutiny from the court as presently constructed.
From EJ Dionne has come an altogether more ambitious proposal: a kind of national civics drive aimed at restoring America’s historical memory. If citizens better understood the dualism of their nation’s story, the conflation of individualism and communitarianism, there might be hope for restoring the sense of “American balance”. But the notion of achieving some kind of historical consensus seems fantastical — even more far-fetched than achieving political consensus.
Some, like Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, have thrown up their hands in despair. “The cliché is true,” he opined in a review of It’s Even Worse Than You Think. “Washington is broken. But it’s even worse than Mann and Ornstein say: It can’t be fixed.”
If Obama wins the election, Republicans on Capitol Hill will persevere with the same obstructionist tactics that produced mid-term gains after Obama’s victory in 2008 and Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. If Romney becomes the next President, the Democratic caucus will also look to thwart him. “Democratic legislators have shown they can throw up roadblocks as well as Republicans,” notes Hasen — just look at the use of the filibuster to block the Bush administration’s judicial appointments.
Dismal as this campaign may have been, there may be grounds for hopefulness. The Tea Party, despite being the most energetic political force, failed to produce a plausible presidential candidate. Nor did it exercise a veto over the eventual Republican nominee. Other than the former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who preemptively torpedoed his own candidacy by working for Barack Obama as the US ambassador to China, Romney was the most moderate of the Republican candidates, for all his attempts to recast himself as an anti-government conservative.
Romney’s success in the first presidential debate is also worth dwelling upon. With that fabled Etch-a-Sketch working overtime, he managed to present himself as a pragmatic moderate by emphasising his record in Massachusetts and his success at achieving bipartisanship with a hostile, Democratic-controlled state legislature. For 90 minutes, Obama was confronted with the kind of moderate Republican with whom he had hoped to achieve consensus, and was at a loss as to how to respond.
Also telling was the acclaim for Bill Clinton’s keynote address at the Democratic convention. Fierce was his partisan attack on the GOP, but he also praised Eisenhower, Reagan and the Bushes. “Though I often disagree with Republicans,” he said, “I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats.” He also delivered a timely reminder of what can be achieved through cooperation on Capital Hill — in his case, a major welfare reform and a balanced budget. Just his mere presence, and the continued popularity it reflected, warned of the pitfalls of partisan excess. His re-election in 1996 stemmed from Newt Gingrich’s pig-headed decision to shut down the government. He also left office with the highest approval ratings of any departing President, even after the Republican-controlled House had voted for his impeachment, a move which boomeranged on the GOP.
The election could also have been much nastier, had the Supreme Court voted to overturn Obamacare.
With it rulings in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, the conservative-leaning court had already undermined the Supreme Court’s supposed role as an honest broker. By siding with liberals on the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts might even have averted a full-blown constitutional crisis — another step back from the brink.
The Birther movement, and its leading supporter Donald Trump, has been discredited. Sarah Palin has been little more than a peripheral figure. Romney, even when he has trailed badly in the polls, has not played the race card (though he did crack a “birther joke” and ran an ad criticising Obama’s welfare reforms that seemed designed to tap white resentment).
As calls grow for American politics to revert to the centre ground, there is a certain irony in the fact that two of the modern-day politicians best able to re-orientate Washington back towards the middle have the most polarising names in politics: Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. During his eight years as the governor of Florida, Bush pushed through a strongly Republican agenda that included banning affirmative action in state contracts, but he has cast himself more recently as a pragmatist and condemned the “hyperpartisanship” in Washington. During her time in the Senate, Hillary demonstrated a flair for bipartisanship and entered into some improbable political alliances — over foster care and child abuse, for instance, with Tom Delay, the former Republican House Majority leader and her husband’s longtime nemesis.
In making the case for centrism, Bill Clinton likes to evoke the double-barreled message of the lowly one-cent coin. On one side, aside the blurry profile of Abraham Lincoln, is the word “Liberty”. On the other is the national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one. Now it has a negative symbolism, because its dualist idealism has been lost amidst the partisan affray. Across red and blue America, the idea has become just as devalued as the coin.