Norman Ornstein once again sets the record straight, resonding to those who say both parties are responsible for the degree of polarization and gridlock we are now experiencing:
Tom Mann and I, among others, have said that the polarization in the capital is asymmetric, much more on the conservative and Republican side than on the liberal and Democratic side. An army of journalists—including Ron Fournier, Paul Kane, and others—have said both sides are to blame. And journalists led by Jim Fallows have decried what he first called “false equivalence.” This malady itself has two components. The first, which in many ways is a larger ingrained journalistic habit that tries mightily to avoid any hint of reporting bias, is the reflexive “we report both sides of every story,” even to the point that one side is given equal weight not supported by reality. The second, often called the Green Lantern approach and typified by Bob Woodward, is that presidential leadership—demanding change, sweet-talking, and threatening lawmakers—could readily overcome any dysfunction caused by polarization, thus allocating responsibility in a different way that deflects any sign of asymmetry.
As the Pew study makes clear, in the mid- to late-1990s, we did not have anywhere near the level of public polarization or ideological or partisan animosity that we have now. In the public, this phenomenon has been much more recent (and is accelerating). But in the Gingrich era in Congress, starting in 1993, where Republicans united in both houses to oppose major Clinton initiatives and moved vigorously from the start of his presidency to delegitimize him, the era of tribalism started much earlier, while the ante was upped dramatically in the Obama years. The fact is that it was not public divisions on issues that drove elite polarization, but the opposite: Cynical politicians and political consultants in the age of the permanent campaign, bolstered by radio talk-show hosts and cable-news producers and amplified by blogs and social media, did a number on the public.
The elite tribalism was not all one-sided. To be sure, there was plenty of vitriol hurled by Democrats at George W. Bush. But Democrats worked hand-in-glove with Bush at the early, vulnerable stage of his controversial presidency to enact No Child Left Behind, which gave his presidency precious credibility and provided the votes and support needed for his tax cuts. Contrast that with the early stages of the Obama presidency.
Merry uses immigration to dispute our characterization of the contemporary Republican Party as an insurgent outlier, dismissive of science; no surprise that he does not mention climate change. As for Ron Fournier, I have one point of contention and one response to his question, “Who cares?” First is the characterization of those who believe that the polarization is asymmetric as partisans. There are partisans who have seized on the ideas, but it is very unfair to characterize the scholars and most journalists who have written about this as biased—just as it would be deeply unfair to characterize Fournier, a straight-up journalist of the old school, as an instrument of Republicans or the Right.
More important is the question he raised. Does it matter whether the polarization, and the deep dysfunction that follows from it, is equal or not, including to the average voter? The answer is a resounding yes. If bad behavior—using the nation’s full faith and credit as a hostage to political demands, shutting down the government, attempting to undermine policies that have been lawfully enacted, blocking nominees not on the basis of their qualifications but to nullify the policies they would pursue, using filibusters as weapons of mass obstruction—is to be discouraged or abandoned, those who engage in it have to be held accountable. Saying both sides are equally responsible, insisting on equivalence as the mantra of mainstream journalism, leaves the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem. The public is left with a deeper disdain for all politics and all politicians, and voters become more receptive to demagogues and those whose main qualification for office is that they have never served, won’t compromise, and see everything in stark black-and-white terms.
Besides, this excerpt, read the full article, along with his writings with Thomas Mann, including this op-ed and their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. For a look at the unprecedented obstructionism towards Obama practiced by the Republicans, see this Frontline documentary,The Republicans’ Plan For The New President:
On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, a group of top GOP luminaries quietly gathered in a Washington steakhouse to lick their wounds and ultimately create the outline of a plan for how to deal with the incoming administration.
“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told FRONTLINE.
Among them were Senate power brokers Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.
After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything. The new president had no idea what the Republicans were planning.