Theory of Partisan Reality

The past decade has brought a marked increase in partisan unpleasantness in legislative bodies almost everywhere in the country.
by | March 2006

Not many people noticed it at the time, but last year the Oregon Senate passed a bill that would have pretty much eliminated political parties from state government altogether. The governor, the attorney general and other state officials would run on a ballot without partisan identification. So would all the legislators. In all likelihood, party caucuses and party leadership would disappear from the Capitol in Salem. There would be no need for them.

The bill didn't get anywhere in the House, but the fact that such a sweeping measure passed one chamber--and by a 20-10 margin--offered at least a clue that something interesting was going on. A few weeks ago, the author of the legislation, state Senator Charlie Ringo, announced his unexpected retirement. He said he no longer wanted to serve in an institution poisoned by partisan bickering. "The blind allegiance to party," he said, "is killing us."

The departure of Ringo isn't likely to put out the fire over the issues he raised. The Oregonian, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the state, also has been on something of a rampage. "Fierce partisanship in recent years," the paper concluded in one of many editorials on the subject, "clearly has contributed to the legislature's failures." It cited the inability of the 2005 session to deal with crucial questions of health care, school funding and tax policy. The Oregonian is urging that a governmental reform commission appointed last year take a serious look at Ringo's fundamental idea: Crack down on partisanship by simply writing parties out of the electoral equation.

One could write this fervor off as characteristic Oregon quirkiness, if something along similar lines weren't going on right across the border, in Washington State. There, the crusader has been State Treasurer Mike Murphy. Last year, he asked the legislature to make his own office nonpartisan. Management of the state's money, he argued, has no logical or useful connection to political party agendas. The legislature turned him down. It also rejected a bill to make county sheriffs nonpartisan officials. But the ideas aren't going away. The Seattle Times is agitating for nonpartisan county councils. "It's time for politicians to rid themselves of the party label," the paper's editorial page editor opined last year. "If you think of an issue that ended in partisanship, then you also think of an issue where county government has failed."

Similar sentiments are beginning to stir, if somewhat less dramatically, in California and Colorado. In the Observer section of this month's magazine, Alan Greenblatt recounts how two California legislators, consistently rebuffed in efforts to establish a more civil and bipartisan climate, are seeking to bypass the legislative process and create a citizens' commission aimed at reaching the same goals. Meanwhile, in Colorado, two dozen first-term legislators have formed a bipartisan caucus designed in response to what they see as growing public resentment at partisan excess. "The voting populace," one of the members said recently, "is so tired of partisan bickering."

As you may have noticed by now, all of these states have something in common: They are in the West. Out beyond the Rockies, political parties have never had a very good reputation. It was California that pioneered in the use of the direct primary to weaken state party bosses; Washington that first experimented with a primary ballot that didn't have partisan labels on it; Oregon that made famous the voter initiative process.

All those things happened in the early years of the 20th century. Now, in the early years of the 21st, one might plausibly contend that a similar regional revolt is underway--that the visceral Western resentment against "Eastern" party bosses, autocratic leadership and government in general is simply making one of its periodic comebacks.

It may be a plausible argument, but I don't think it will prove to be accurate. I think what's starting to happen in the West isn't so much a regional eccentricity but rather a broader form of dissent that will, as have many other political and governmental ideas, gradually work its way east across the mountains. The truth is that the past decade has brought a marked increase in partisan unpleasantness in legislative bodies almost everywhere in the country. Many theories have been advanced to explain what has caused it--district maps that produce too many safe one-party seats; negative campaign ads that leave candidates bearing long-term grudges; interest groups that demand partisan rigidity as a price for support--but the existence of the phenomenon itself is difficult to dispute.

The frustrations have probably been greatest--among legislators and voters alike--in states that used to consider themselves relatively free of the problem. These include not only Washington and Oregon but also Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, where good- government traditions were once thought sufficient to preclude the most egregious partisan abuses.

In Wisconsin, where the pressures of partisan competition in recent years led to illegal fund-raising, indictments of leaders in both parties, and a widespread public distrust of the entire governmental process, the atmosphere of personal hostility has left quite a few senior members lamenting that the collegial institution they once served in has essentially ceased to exist. "What has changed in the last 20 years," one veteran told a reporter recently, "is that the people on each side of the aisle don't just fight about policy. They don't like each other very much as individuals. People are actually told they shouldn't mingle socially with the other side." Last year, the Democratic leader of the Assembly complained that the Republican Speaker refused to talk to him or even look at him. The Speaker retorted that the Democrat was "crazy" and "a very bitter person."

Common to most of the current complaints about partisan excess is a notion that there was a Golden Age of bipartisanship, a time in the not too distant past when opposing forces disagreed respectfully, came together when necessary for the common good, and established close personal friendships outside the confines of the chamber. Legislators all over the country like to talk about this. But when was the Golden Age, exactly? That's a little harder to pin down.

In Oregon, there's a pretty clear consensus about when the Golden Age was: It was in the early 1970s, when the revered Tom McCall was governor and the state passed landmark bills controlling pollution and preserving rural land from the ravages of sprawl. "The late 1960s and early 1970s," longtime newspaper editor Doug Bates wrote last year, "have been transmogrified into such a misty, mystical time in state lore that frustrated Oregonians waste too much time longing for a new Tom McCall to lead us from the dismal swamp of mediocrity." The answer, Bates insisted, wasn't another McCall--it was the re-creation of a legislature willing to rise above partisanship.

In every legislative body that I know of, there's a commonly held perception that civility once prevailed and partisan excesses were kept in check. But if you strapped yourself into a time machine and traveled back to the Oregon legislature of 1969 or 1971, I can almost guarantee that you'd find some legislators expressing the same nostalgic laments for a still earlier period--probably around the time they first took the oath of office.

As far back as you might wish to go in American political history, you'll see essentially the same thing: politicians of one generation complaining that the civility and public spirit of the previous years have disappeared in an orgy of partisanship; and, further back, a different set of politicians from the previous generation making a similar complaint.

Jeffery Jenkins, a Northwestern University political scientist who studies the history of partisanship, argues that, however powerful nostalgia may be, vicious party infighting has been a constant in public life all the way back to the days when Thomas Jefferson denounced Patrick Henry as having "an avaricious and rotten heart," and urged loyal Jeffersonians to "devoutly pray for his death."

Jenkins does offer one caveat: He says that the period from 1945 to 1965 really was a bit less partisan, with consensus politics prevailing in Congress and most of the states. But this was a historical aberration, and it came at a high price: tightly knit legislative oligarchies that excluded blacks and Republicans in the South and largely ignored urban interests in the Midwest. Politics was less partisan in those years for a very good reason: Much of the country was operating under a one-party system. If you look back to that time, you find most experts proclaiming that the cure for legislative failure was more partisanship, not less. More partisanship is what we got; it just doesn't look very pretty now that we have it.

In the end, one has to say that Charlie Ringo is right: There has been an epidemic of partisanship in the past decade, and we will all be better off if we can make it subside. But that probably doesn't mean trying to ban it from legislatures altogether. Two hundred years of American history suggest that this isn't a realistic option.

As my witness on that point, I call upon George Washington, a politician who didn't like parties very much but ultimately found a way to live with them. Partisanship, he wrote, is "a fire not to be quenched. It demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."There's a commonly held perception that civility once prevailed and partisan excesses were kept in check.

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