How to Break the Partisan Fever


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It is not only reductionist, but fundamentally undemocratic to believe, as Powell argues, that if the people would just stop paying attention to what goes on in Washington (helped along by the media refusing to report the political news) politicians could get back to the business of compromising out their differences. It’s not Congress’s differences — it’s the people’s differences. Congressmen and women are really quite good at knowing what their electorates want.

There is partisan division in Washington because the American people have been increasingly, ever more deeply and quite evenly divided about where they want America to go as a country. Since the early 1990s, neither congressional party has been able to sustain more than a percent or two majority of total House votes cast in the country for more than one election cycle. This has been a plus or minus 49-49 percent congressional electorate, except for the occasional temporarily decisive vote such as in 1994, 2006 and 2010. By itself, this close divide has turned every House seat into a potential majority maker or breaker – and, thus, both parties fight ever harder for each seat. At the presidential level as well, not since Reagan won with about 60 percent of the popular vote in 1984 has any president won with more than about 53 percent (1988: George H.W. Bush, 53.4 percent; 1992, Bill Clinton, 43 percent; 1996 Bill Clinton, 49.2 percent; 2000: George W. Bush, 47.9 percent; 2004, George W. Bush 50.7 percent; 2008: Barack Obama 52.9 percent.)

The heart of the matter, though, is that Americans are deeply divided between resisting or embracing a Europeanized, post-constitutional American economy, government and culture. This decision can no more be compromised on behind closed doors with no one watching than could the question of civil rights and creation of the welfare state in the 1950s- ’60s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor-oriented statism in the 1930s, slavery in the 1850s-’60s or Andrew Jackson’s rights of the common man in the 1830s. Each of those historic epochs was brought on by decisive and sustained shifts in national majority opinion.

Today, the nation awaits decisive leadership to make its case to a sustainable working majority of the American people. Of course, there will be compromises — plenty of them — in working out the details that will follow from a new national vision of itself. But before the compromises, must come a vision of America’s future that grabs and holds for at least a decade or two the enthusiastic support of at least 55 percent of the American people.

Divisive, dysfunctional, partisan politics is not the cause of our problems. It is the symptom of a decades long lack of visionary leadership capable of galvanizing a majority of Americans to decisive action. Throwing away the thermometer will not break the fever.

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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.