Our politics, of course, have always brought divisions. We did, after all, have a civil war, and we had adamant opposition to FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, and many other political leaders. Even so, it feels as if our politics are more divided than ever. In one sense it is because the dividing lines are more partisan than ever. For a long stretch, the two major parties were more ideologically diverse within their own ranks than they are now. When each party encompassed conservatives, moderates, and liberals, party discipline was impossible, and coalitions were common across party lines. For example, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed with both Democratic and Republican votes. Robert G. Kaiser in Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t, a fascinating study of the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in the wake of the financial crisis, states that this cooperating dynamic changed when Newt Gingrich and his team in 1995 put a premium on party discipline.
This bipartisan divide can be seen starkly in the demise of the conference committee. Almost always when one House of Congress passes a bill and then the other does, there are differences between the two bills. For a hundred years or more, a conference committee then sought to reconcile the varying provisions which would then become the law. That committee consisted of representatives from each chamber and would include members from each party roughly in proportion to each party’s membership in each House. Gingrich did not support this traditional conference committee because it gave a role to minority Democrats, whom he had demonized to get a Republican majority. He insisted instead that the Senate negotiate differences in passed bills with him and the rest of House leadership. When the Democrats regained the House in 2006, they followed Gingrich’s methods. In 2007-08, only 2% of bills that became law went through a conference committee.
Gerrymandering has also intensified the partisan divide. Gerrymandering has been with us since the opening days of the Republic. For example, Patrick Henry disdained James Madison and had Virginia gerrymandered seeking to deprive Madison a seat in the first Congress. (Madison still won.)
Originally gerrymandering was about individuals. Legislative districts were manipulated in order to have a particular person elected or defeated, but that changed over time to ensure that the member of a particular party, no matter who the individual candidate was, would win the seat. Kaiser sees that change starting in California in 1982. By 2000, 300 of 435 House seats were safe for one party or the other. In a safe district, a candidate does not have to appeal to the other side or even to the center to get elected. The candidate merely must win the party’s primary. When elected, members can indulge their ideology without political retribution. Partisan divides increase.
The political divide has hardened not only because of increased partisanship and gerrymandering but also because of the philosophy of modern Republicans. As Kaiser states, since President Reagan, the Republican party has not believed in governance and has sought to diminish the role of government as an end in itself. Conservatism no longer means seeking legislation based on conservative principles; it means diminishing government. Period. Obamacare is an example. Trump and other conservatives ran on repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something “better.” Obamacare certainly has flaws, and health insurance certainly could use improvements, but the Republicans never dug into conservative principles to propose a better system. The Republicans just wanted to end Obamacare seeing it simply as more government.
We can also see the Republican modern principles in the cry against regulations. Republicans do not propose regulations, which after all have the goal of protecting the general welfare, based on conservative principles. The goal is just to wipe out regulations and to get rid of government oversight of…well, just about anything. The recent Republican party has primarily stood for lower taxes, a strategy aimed at “starving the beast,” and the appointment of “conservative” judges with a goal that the courts will strike down various regulations and legislation to lessen government involvement.
When one party has the primary goal of not governing, the two parties are simply not involved in the same governing game. Filibusters illustrate. The filibuster is a device to prevent government from operating. It has long existed, but until recently it was rarely employed. There were fifteen Senate cloture motions, or a filibuster, in 1970, and in the1980s, for a two-year Congress, there were no more than eighty. But after the Democrats regained the Senate, cloture motions leapt to 139 in 2007-08 and to 137 in 2009-10. As Kaiser states, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, “adopted the threat of a filibuster as a basic tactic.” “Let’s not govern” really should have been the motto.
Might the pandemic, however, change or break some of our political, social, and cultural divides? The coronavirus outbreak is a communal event in that it affects nearly all Americans in their regular behavior and will for a significant period. Yes, the pandemic’s epicenter is now New York. Yes, it has affected black and poor communities harder than others. Yes, the rich have more opportunities to mitigate the effects. Yes, there are orchestrated demonstrations against stay-at-home directives. But the attempts to control the spread of Covid-19 has affected and will continue to affect a vast majority of the country. Although the effects may vary, it touches the rich and the poor; the highly and less educated; the young and old; the Catholic, the Baptist, and the areligious; the immigrant and the native born; those with children and those without; the conservative, the liberal, and the apolitical.
The effects have not been a mere minor disruption of lives. Businesses, schools, and churches are closed. Unemployment has skyrocketed; education has had to take new forms; travel for many has ceased; social distancing and lockdowns prevent gatherings of families and friends and the suspension of movies, concerts, and sports. While we can hope that conditions will improve so that some restrictions can be eased, the pandemic will continue to affect us until a vaccine is developed and the vast majority of Americans are vaccinated, which seems likely to be more than a year away.
Already there is much speculation about the lasting changes this will bring, and which businesses, nonprofits, and colleges will not survive and which will come out stronger and whether the work-at-home phenomenon and online learning will transform future work and education patterns.
(concluded May 1)