How to Break the Partisan Fever


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Sunday on “Meet the Press” Colin Powell blamed divisive, poisonous Washington politics on the media and the Tea Party. The essence of Powell’s argument was: “Republicans and Democrats are focusing more and more on their extreme left and extreme right. And we have to come back toward the center in order to compromise. … The media has to help us. The media loves this game, where everybody is on the extreme. It makes for great television. … So what we have to do is sort of take some of the heat out of our political life in terms of the coverage of it, so these folks (Congress) can get to work quietly. … But the Tea Party point of view of no compromise whatsoever is not a point of view that will eventually produce a presidential candidate who will win.”

Of course this is ahistoric. The media has been a circulation-, listener- and viewer-motivated political snapping turtle since the country’s founding (and a liberal snapping turtle since the 1940s). And, of course, the rise of divisive Washington politics predates by decades the emergence of the Tea Party to national attention in 2009.

As a technical matter, many, if not most, congressional historians believe that conscious, congressional partisanship in recent times did not start with the Tea Party or Obama or Bush or Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton in the 90s.

It started in 1984, in the disputed congressional election of Indiana’s “bloody 8th” congressional district. A Republican, Richard McIntyre, won in a recount by 418 votes, according to the Indiana Republican secretary of state. Then the Democratic majority in the House set up a task force of two Democratic and one Republican congressmen to re-decide the state tally. The two Democrats on the commission concluded that the Democratic incumbent congressman, Rep. Frank McCloskey, won by four votes. Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright seated McCloskey.

The Republican Party, furious but impotent, became convinced that a corrupt Democratic Party majority would have to be defeated if progress on any front could be made. And thus was born modern congressional partisan self-consciousness.

Fifteen years later, Leon Panetta who in 1985 was the congressional chairman of the task force that reversed the election results admitted, according to the Los Angeles Times, that the “House vote to seat McCloskey would have been more broadly accepted if the task force had included an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and if there had been consensus in the finding. If the committee leans partisan, either Republican or Democratic, then it will always be viewed as a partisan result.”

But beyond the minor question of which event lit the fuse of partisanship, broader more significant forces have given rise to the current divisions.

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  • N Chomsky

    “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

  • Amused

    Partisan politics has been around since the 1790's . It's nothing new , nor is the vitriol exchanged between the parties . It's NOT a phenomena . Federalists and Anti-Federalists .
    I dont know what that B.S. statement above by N Chomsky is supposed to mean .You can't have Liberty and "limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion " .Such a statement is double-talk [could be someone trying to sound smart ]. If it's a sarcasm , then yes , I get it .
    Interesting piece by a noteworthy Constitutional historian : Partisanship is rooted in the Constitution because of First Amendment freedoms. Clearly freedom of the press and freedom of association allow and even invite the abuse of licentiousness and excessive partisanship. But what is the alternative? Madison understood that in a free society, politics, including the spirit of party, is ubiquitous. Since the latent cause of faction and spirit of party are natural to man, Madison sought to control the effects of faction, rather than to remove the causes, since the cure would be worse than the disease. That is what the Anti-Federalists wanted; it would have required curbing liberty. The point was to expand, not limit, liberty.

    • afagfre

      Democrats and Republicans have very similar positions; what they lie about is different. On the few issues they don't completely agree, there is fierce debate. Any other issues go unmentioned. When Democrats and Republicans are portrayed as complete opposites, it drastically reduces the topics and range of opinions in political debate.

  • Jim

    We vote for congressmen to act for our interests not to compromise our interests.