The lead article in yesterday’s New York Times “Sunday Review” section argues that the mess in Washington is largely caused by the fact that our two political parties have each become too coherent ideologically:

The idea of two ideologically consistent, European-style parties that offer voters clear-cut choices may sound logical. But our federal government has always worked best when our major parties were instead messy, exasperating contradictions, sprawled across many different regions.

The author, Kevin Baker, is reflecting a longstanding undercurrent in punditry and political science that celebrates the wonderful, paradoxical exceptionalism of American politics: it’s not neat or logical, but it works so well! His principal evidence of the baneful effects of ideological coherence is today’s Republican Party, which is drearily consistent in its militant right-wing messaging. Baker’s article offers some useful historical narrative, but his analysis is a bit confused and his main point is misdirected.   I responded in a letter to the Times (we’ll see if it gets published, but the odds are it won’t) consisting of the next two paragraphs.

Kevin Baker misdiagnoses the problem.  Our political dysfunction reflects not so much the internal ideological consistency of each of our two political parties, but their polarization–that is, the ideological distance between them.

As Baker’s own account makes clear, that distance has widened largely because of the movement of the Republican Party toward the extreme right.  The Republicans’ embrace of the radical right has led them to reject the norms of rhetoric and behavior that have kept conflict manageable for most of our history since the Civil War.  There is no reason to believe that a party of the center left and a party of the center right would be unable to coexist constructively in a decently functioning democracy.  Instead, we have a party of the center left facing a party of the hard right, with the latter typically more interested in political warfare than in governance.

As I indicated, Baker seems to understand this but he is reluctant to say flatly that our problem is the radicalism of one of our two political parties. So, he obfuscates with the argument that both parties somehow have manifested the same destructive tendency.   It’s another example of the false balance that so many of our journalists employ in their striving for “objectivity.”


  1. John Duggan December 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    … our problem is the radicalism of one of our two political parties …

    1.) Noam Chomsky:
    … It is important to bear in mind that the Republicans have long abandoned the pretence of functioning as a normal parliamentary party. Rather, they have become a “radical insurgency” that scarcely seeks to participate in normal parliamentary politics, as observed by the respected conservative political commentator Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. …
    – Source:
    Noam Chomsky in “Rogue states and diplomacy”. Interviewed by Vijay Prasad. Frontline [India]. Reprinted in CounterPunch. September 17, 2015.

    2.) Noam Chomsky:
    “Both parties have shifted well to the right, the Republicans almost off the spectrum. Respected conservative commentator Norman Ornstein described them, plausible, as a ‘radical insurgency’ that has largely abandoned parliamentary politics…”
    – Source:
    Noam Chomsky: How the Word ‘Liberal’ Has Been Totally Distorted in America.
    A casualty of the right wing assault on America.
    By Sincere T. Kirabo
    October 1, 2015

    3.) Noam Chomsky:
    There is still a Republican organization, but it long ago abandoned any pretense of being a normal parliamentary party. Conservative commentator Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute describes today’s Republicans as “a radical insurgency — ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”: a serious danger to the society.
    – Source:
    De-Americanizing the World
    By Noam Chomsky
    November 5, 2013

    • tonygreco December 21, 2015 at 3:38 pm

      I largely agree with the Chomsky quotes cited, except for the assertion that both parties have shifted well to the right. I think the Democrats are pretty much where they have been–even slightly left of where they’ve been, due to the decline of the Party in the South–since the New Deal.

      • Crissa December 22, 2015 at 2:12 am

        In some ways, Democrats have shifted to the right, but most of those are because of the drift in picking up Republicans who were abandoned by their party. All the leftward drift seems to be basic treading water with the majority of the country – which makes the Republican drift even more astounding, really.

        I don’t think the platform of Democrats has changed much, just there is a huge gap in the desire to reach across the aisle between the two major parties. A gap that’s duplicated in the voters’ wishes as well.

        • tonygreco December 22, 2015 at 11:11 am

          Good observation. Yes: while the Dems have lost conservative southerners, they have picked up moderate Republicans, including and maybe especially at the elite level.

  2. Jeffrey Herrmann December 23, 2015 at 3:33 am

    I agree with your analysis of the trends among ideologues in both parties, but I don’t think ideology is driving trends among the masses of voters today. The angry Repugnican Joe Sixpacks don’t spend much time theorizing and actually want to hang on to some parts of the liberal welfare state. But they have finally started to ask themselves “What the hell is wrong with us, Kansas?” as it has dawned on them that the plutocratic donors and the agents they install in federal and state offices are advancing — surprise, surprise! — the interests of the plutocrats, not Joe Sixpack. They have awakened to the fact that the Repugnican establishment is dedicated to ever increasing the return on capital at the expense of the return on labor. Joe Sixpack knows that neither he nor his kids are ever going to benefit from generous stock option programs or outsize year-end bonuses. Of course, that does not mean that Joe Sixpack will now vote for the party that wants to lift those “Other People.” Joe might just sit this election out if Trump isn’t the nominee.

    • tonygreco December 23, 2015 at 12:11 pm


      I think you may well be right: a TADS (Trump arousal/disappointment syndrome) could hurt the GOP even if, denied the nomination, he doesn’t run as a 3rd party candidate. The syndrome might not be as operative if Cruz gets the nomination: he’s been careful to kowtow to Trump’s supporters, and he does a reasonably good faux populist act.

      • Jeffrey Herrmann December 24, 2015 at 3:32 am


        It’s fun to watch the Repugnican freak show descend into the depths of absurdity. Assuming Trump is denied the nomination, will the plutocrats back Cruz, who wants to return to the gold standard? Even someone dumb enough to believe in supply side economics will recognize that returning to the gold standard would be economic suicide. So who is left? Bush is history, although he will be reported for a few more months, sputtering that leadership isn’t about this, it’s about that — which he read in a book authored by some motivational speaker. Rubio (the most telegenic and articulate, imho) has an incompetent campaign organization and can’t seem to raise money. And has some shady associations. Carson fell into a deep sleep from which he won’t awake until the day after the election. Fiorina can’t even get her name into a headline on page 15 anymore, although she may only have been auditioning for Sarah Palin’s former spot on the ticket. Christie? If you believe he can win, I’ll sell you the George Washingon Bridge. As for the others, they aren’t worth wasting keystrokes over.
        What’s a Repugnican gonna do?

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