Two old political chestnuts have resurfaced in recent months, both beginning their periodic regrowth among the kudzu of punditry, an expansion that recurs every time our media begins preparing for the presidential campaign season. I was tempted here to use the Lazarus metaphor, or to refer to the recent occurrences as a re-birth, but in truth these two concepts never really die, they merely wax and wane in a four-year cycle in line with the rise and fall of media discussion of the race for the presidency (something that also never seems to go away). These two popular simplifying constructs are, currently and predictably, on their way back into prominence, despite the fact that they are a very poor fit for the political reality we experience, and despite the fact that they contradict each other.
False generalization number one is the idea that there is really no difference between the two political parties. Depending on the preferences of the speaker, the two parties are both toadies to the corporate agenda, or they have become devoted to their own self-preservation above all else, or they are both victims of the beltway mindset, separated from and unresponsive to their constituents back home. The concept of big-party sameness has been promulgated by a variety of smaller third parties, by unaffiliated third-way promoters, and by those whose primary interest seems to be to reduce voter participation. It is an argument popular among people who don’t know much about politics but who want to say something that sounds both savvy and cynical. It is also popular with those who align with one of the two major parties but who are unhappy with their party’s stance on specific issues. Like almost all broad generalizations about politics, it is plainly at odds with the observed facts, such as, for example, the voting records of most Republicans and Democrats, both in Congress and at the state level, over the past three decades.
Why do we currently have gridlock in Congress? Could it possibly be because the two major parties agree on almost everything? Not even close. In recent years, on legislation regarding immigration, the social safety net, banking regulations, the environment, and other divisive issues, Republicans have voted in lockstep on one side and Democrats lined up almost unanimously on the other. On those rare occasions when the media has proclaimed “bipartisan agreement” on a specific bill it is almost always because a small number of one party has joined 95 percent of the other party to pass the issue. In what way does this pattern of voting indicate that the two parties are interchangeable? Simple—it doesn’t. This is not a “shades of grey” variation in an otherwise similar worldview. It indicates that there is a significant and uncompromising philosophical divide separating the two parties.
Popular construct number two among the pundits is that there is a growing and possibly irreparable split within each of the national political parties, a schism that seems especially to affect the party currently in power in Congress. This year, with GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House, it is the Republican party that is receiving the bulk of this dueling-caucus analysis. And with the assumption that Hillary Clinton has an almost inevitable lock on the Democratic race for president, virtually all of the speculation about whether a “moderate” or a “radical” will gain the 2016 presidential nomination is focused on the GOP. One of the problems with this concept relates to the above paragraphs about the supposed sameness of the two parties. In media stories, any Republican who compromises with Democrats on one issue is automatically considered a “moderate”, whatever his or her stance on the rest of the party platform. Such a media construct is inane, as summed up neatly in a commentary by Eric Alterman in The Nation (January 12/19, 2015, p. 8):
True, Jeb Bush may be a ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist’ in a context
where one of America’s two political parties has all but gone
insane. But without such context, those labels are a lie.
Yes, there is a divide in the Republican Party. The media focuses on the tension between the growing Tea Party wing and the leadership, who are in the group often called “establishment” Republicans. On some occasions this has come to public attention, especially on issues such as immigration and abortion. And yet, when it comes down to an actual vote on legislation, the GOP caucus manages to vote almost in unanimity, virtually all of the members voting the party line. And in such cases, the dissenters are usually not Tea Party, but from the small number of “liberal” Republicans, most of them from the northeastern U.S. This voting unanimity comes in large part because the GOP has acted to demonize and replace many of its own members if they failed to follow an increasingly right-wing party line, or if they too often compromised with Democrats. It also comes from the fact that in philosophy, the GOP establishment wing is much closer to the Tea Party than to the Democrats.
On the Democratic side party discipline is not quite as solid—in part because there is a wider collection of sub-groups within the party (the progressive caucus, the Black caucus, the blue dog caucus, the women’s caucus), in part because the Democratic leadership has been more tolerant of members who don’t toe the line. Not so much a split as a variety of ideological preferences. All of the various caucuses are active in promoting their own preferences in legislation, but when the dust settles, again, they almost all vote in favor of the path chosen by the Democratic leadership. In such cases, the dissenters are almost always blue dogs, most of them from southern and rural districts.
If, in fact, there actually was a large independent bloc of moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats who had similar world-views and a common agenda we would get much more legislation through Congress with true bipartisan support. If there was a majority bloc of corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats eager to do the bidding of their wealthy donors, the Keystone XL pipeline and TPP fast track trade authority would have sailed through congress without having to wait for the 2014 elections. If anti-choice legislators were at all common in the Democratic Party, the 20-week abortion ban would not have had to wait for GOP majorities in both houses. Congressional behavior in recent decades clearly belies the idea that either party is divided into the blocks of “radical” and “centrist” groups popular in media analysis. Yes, there are radicals and there are moderates, but the significant differences between the parties are much wider than the differences within them.
The pundit’s corollary to the concept of division within parties is that if these divisions did not exist, if the radicals were not constantly pulling the parties away from the center, there would be more compromise between the parties and more centrist legislation. Unfortunately, this assumption is based on the idea that the two parties are similar in ideology and intent, that they share similar goals (which they say they do) and similar approaches to achieving those goals (which they certainly do not).
I, of course, am simplifying the political reality to some degree, as we often must do to make any sense of a generalized overview. But the idea that both political parties are the same is an extreme oversimplification, and a dangerous one. It encourages analysts to see difference where little exists. For voters, it significantly minimizes the importance of choosing between candidates for office and gives them an easy excuse for avoiding learning about the issues—and, eventually, for sitting out the elections. It also strengthens the power of operatives who want voters to focus on minor issues, on perceived or falsified differences in character or appearance. This allows negative advertising to be much more effective. And in the common cases when an inspirational new leader fails to achieve all of the tasks he or she has promised, it allows even engaged, knowledgeable followers to reject that leader as more of the same, rather than recognizing the inherent limits of our political system. Party similarity is a myth commonly repeated on both the left and the right, and it should be countered whenever possible.