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. But 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.