The Fall of Polarization

George Packer has a must-read article in The New Yorker on The Fall of Conservatism which shows how Republicans have used polarization as a political tool. Packer draws some parallels to this election and I would like to add some additional ones. Long before Hillary Clinton’s supporters turned into clones of the far right and began denouncing their political opponents as “elitists,” Richard Nixon used such divisiveness as for political gain:

Although he was careful to renounce the extreme fringe of Birchites and racists, his means to power eventually became the end. Buchanan gave me a copy of a seven-page confidential memorandum—“A little raw for today,” he warned—that he had written for Nixon in 1971, under the heading “Dividing the Democrats.” Drawn up with an acute understanding of the fragilities and fault lines in “the Old Roosevelt Coalition,” it recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare.

Ronald Reagan turned out to be “more ideological in his rhetoric than in his governance.” While certainly drawing criticism from the left, the Reagan years were not as polarizing as the Nixon years before or the Gingrich and Bush years which followed. The peak of divisiveness came under George Bush:

The phrase that signalled Bush’s approach was “compassionate conservatism,” but it never amounted to a policy program. Within hours of the Supreme Court decision that ended the disputed Florida recount, Dick Cheney met with a group of moderate Republican senators, including Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island. According to Chafee’s new book, “Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President” (Thomas Dunne), the Vice-President-elect gave the new order of battle: “We would seek confrontation on every front. . . . The new Administration would divide Americans into red and blue, and divide nations into those who stand with us or against us.” Cheney’s combative instincts and belief in an unfettered and secretive executive proved far more influential at the White House than Bush’s campaign promise to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Cheney behaved as if, notwithstanding the loss of the popular vote, conservative Republican domination could continue by sheer force of will. On domestic policy, the Administration made tax cuts and privatization its highest priority; and its conduct of the war on terror broke with sixty years of relatively bipartisan and multilateralist foreign policy.

The Administration’s political operatives were moving in the same direction. The Republican strategist Matthew Dowd studied the 2000 results and concluded that the proportion of swing voters in America had declined from twenty-two to seven per cent over the previous two decades, which meant that mobilizing the Party’s base would be more important in 2004 than attracting independents. The strategist Karl Rove’s polarizing political tactics (which brought a new level of demographic sophistication to the old formula) buried any hope of a centrist Presidency before Bush’s first term was half finished.

Fortunately the failures of the Bush years brought about an end to the dominance of conservatism. The center reasserted itself as many voters moved from the Republicans to the Democrats by the time of the 2006 Congressional elections. Karl Rove’s strategy of mobilizing the extremes failed when there were too few left who embraced the extremism of the Republican Party:

Ed Rollins said, “Rove knew his voters, he stuck to the message with consistency, he drove that base hard—and there’s nothing left of it. Today, if you’re not rich or Southern or born again, the chances of your being a Republican are not great.” As long as Bush and his party kept winning elections, however slim the margins, Rove’s declared ambition to create a “permanent majority” seemed like the vision of a tactical genius. But it was built on two illusions: that the conservative era would stretch on indefinitely, and that politics matters more than governing. The first illusion defied history; the second was blown up in Iraq and drowned in New Orleans.

Barack Obama got it right in realizing that this year’s election was about change. Both parties rejected candidates who could only appeal to their base in favor of candidates such as John McCain and Barack Obama who appealed to independents and were less identified with the type of polarizing politics which Hillary Clinton embraced during the wrong election year:

Political tactics have a way of outliving their ability to respond to the felt needs and aspirations of the electorate: Democrats continued to accuse Republicans of being like Herbert Hoover well into the nineteen-seventies; Republicans will no doubt accuse Democrats of being out of touch with real Americans long after George W. Bush retires to Crawford, Texas. But the 2006 and 2008 elections are the hinge on which America is entering a new political era.

This will be true whether or not John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, wins in November. He and his likely Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, “both embody a post-polarized, or anti-polarized, style of politics,” the Times columnist David Brooks told me. “McCain, crucially, missed the sixties, and in some ways he’s a pre-sixties figure. He and Obama don’t resonate with the sixties at all.” The fact that the least conservative, least divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing—despite being despised by significant voices on the right—shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces. “The fact that there was no conventional, establishment, old-style conservative candidate was not an accident,” Brooks said. “Mitt Romney pretended to be one for a while, but he wasn’t. Rudy Giuliani sort of pretended, but he wasn’t. McCain is certainly not. It’s not only a lack of political talent—there’s just no driving force, and it will soften up normal Republicans for change.”

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