Here’s an interesting round of arguments. It started with political scientist Lee Drutman, who diagnoses American politics as afflicted with “doom-loop partisanship,” meaning essentially that the two sides of the partisan divide view each other with extreme distrust and hostility, each justifying its view with its own set of facts and first premises incompatible with the other’s.   In short, the problem is an extreme political polarization that prevents the kind of civility, accommodation and openness to alternative viewpoints and compromise that are essential to the functioning of democratic politics.

Along comes Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who says that, while pretty much everything Drutman says is well and good, he nevertheless falls into the fallacy of “both sides-ism.” As Chait sees it, what Drutman describes as a general pathology of American politics is really overwhelmingly attributable to the pathologies of one of the two sides—the Republican side.   While the Democrats continue to act like a mainstream American political party, their partisan adversaries have gone off the deep end. The problem of American politics is that one of our two political parties—just one—has gone nuts.

Both the Drutman and Chait essays are worth reading, but longtime readers will know which of the two I find the more compelling. Chait is right, and the central point he makes is very important. It is very appealing and reasonable sounding and non-partisan to say that “both sides do it,” but it simply ain’t true. Chait ably demonstrates the myriad ways in which the hyper-polarization of American politics is asymmetric: “The only problem in American Politics is the Republican Party.” That undoubtedly is an overstatement, but like many overstatements, it contains a very large element of truth. The Republicans are indeed crazy, as I have tried to show in numerous posts.

But then along comes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones who thinks that, while Chait is mostly right, he is still missing something important.

the problem is not the Republican Party. The problem is that lots of people vote for the Republican Party. The lunacy will stop when that does….[We need to figure out] how and why conservatives continue to attract the support of half the American public no matter how crazy they seem to become. Until we figure this out, things are only going to get worse.”

Of course, Drum is right. We do need to figure out how a radical right-wing party continues to attract the support of (nearly) half of the American electorate. I’m not going to try to answer that question right now, but I do want to quibble a bit with Drum’s formulation, which seems to imply that the craziness of the GOP is simply a mirror of the craziness of its voters.   That seems to absolve Republican leadership of responsibility for their party’s lunacy. How many prominent Republican leaders tried to shoot down the birther movement in its infancy? How many leaders have told their base (not to mention their patrons in the fossil fuel industry) that climate change is real? How many have challenged Rush Limbaugh or Fox News? So, yes, the problem is the Republican Party, whose leadership has sanctioned the creation of a war-like partisan subculture in which right-wing fantasies provide a universe of alternative facts and the partisan enemy is seen as un-American.  I don’t think anywhere near half of the American electorate participate fully and actively in this subculture, but there are enough who tolerate it to enable the right to garner the votes of close to half of all Americans.

4 comments

  1. Jeffrey Herrmann September 14, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    Another piece of the puzzle is tribalism, as Tom Edsall discusses in his latest column. According to one study by Barber and Pope, for many Republicans, partisan identification is more a tribal affiliation than an ideological commitment. Many partisans are, in effect, more aligned with the leader of their party than with the principles of the party…. While party elites are ideologically polarized, the best the general public can manage is a kind of tribal partisanship that does not really reflect the content of the elite discussion.
    This primal hatred against out-groups was evident in the vicious slurs hurled at Obama, the effigies of Clinton in prison garb, the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, etc. If you are going to figure out why nearly half of the electorate identifies with the Repugnican Party, understanding its deep appeal to tribalistic emotions will be part of the explanation.

  2. Donald Campbell September 15, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    In “A Brief History of Humankind,” Harari makes the argument that nationalism (and for than matter ideology) is a religion. According to his definition in a religion beliefs are accepted without evidence.

    Though republicans certainly have a lot to account for with regard to their cynical and irresponsible exercise of power and behaving as if there is a republican religion, the democrats cannot be absolved of irresponsible behavior. Both parties represent elites whose interests are very different from the espoused views of the parties.

    • Jeffrey Herrmann September 16, 2017 at 2:38 am

      The point to take away from the various articles and studies cited by Tony and Edsall is that the appeal of tRump to over sixty million voters does not stem from a dogma of right wing ideas but rather from the visceral emotions of loyalty to tribe.
      Yes, the Repugnican Party espouses irrational and counterfactual ideas, but tRump’s followers aren’t driven by the cognitive processes of their brains.

      • Donald Campbell September 18, 2017 at 11:29 am

        I think we are in general agreement, just semantics.

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