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.”