Ideological purity fuels political gridlock

November 21, 2011


If you are looking for someone to blame for the polarized nature of our politics today, here are two nominees: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the political science establishment.

Together they set out the argument for the situation we have in Washington — a Republican Party loaded with conservatives, a Democratic Party larded with liberals, and few in between. The result has been gridlock, rancor and a sense of despair if not hopelessness in the capital and across the country.

We have a political landscape where it is possible to argue that the most conservative Democrats in Congress today are more liberal than the most liberal Republicans. There is virtually no overlap, no real party dissenters of the sort who were unacceptable to FDR, who wanted a party of ideological purity, and who were inexplicable to political scientists, who looked longingly at the ideologically disciplined parties in Europe and wondered why American parties so defied logic.

But today, FDR and the political science establishment having had their way, the United States has its most ideologically aligned party system in modern history — and perhaps the biggest political crisis in modern history.

Party caucuses always have reinforced party discipline, but for the first time both caucuses are enforcing ideological discipline as well. In the course of their work, lawmakers almost never encounter views that depart from their own, almost never form friendships with their political adversaries. If they don’t practice ideological compromise inside their own parties, they are less likely — less able — to practice it on the floor of both houses of Congress.

“We finally got ideological purity, and it’s a disaster for the country,” says former Gov. Angus King of Maine, an independent. “We have ideological gridlock. You can’t solve problems this way.”

Indeed, the lack of a middle in the American political class is the American problem. The irony is that the American problem repeatedly has been held up as the American solution.

The most prominent advocate for ideologically aligned parties was Roosevelt, who once told Sam Rosenman, a White House speechwriter and the first White House counsel, “We ought to have two real parties — one liberal and the other conservative.”

FDR set out to create just that with his effort to purge conservatives and New Deal foes from the Democratic Party. He singled out, among others, Walter F. George of Georgia, Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina and Millard Tydings of Maryland, all of whom prevailed against the onslaught of White House opprobrium.

Susan Dunn, a Williams College historian who has written the definitive account of the Roosevelt offensive, said the president’s biggest blunder “was to undertake the purge in the absence of impressive challengers to conservative incumbents.”

That very likely is true. For whatever reason, the mushy party system prevailed — and had unforeseen consequences even for Roosevelt. Many of the most ardent opponents of the New Deal turned out to be the most ardent supporters of the president’s initiatives in foreign affairs, supporting Roosevelt on Lend-Lease, so much so that party alignment was doomed as World War II approached.

It gained new life a dozen years later, however, when the American Political Science Review published a landmark article called “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” which argued that American parties needed “sufficient internal cohesion” and a “degree of unity within the parties” that they lacked at mid-century. At that time, the Democratic Party had such conservatives as Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Virginia, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and a series of Southern committee chairmen. The Republicans Party had such liberals as Gov. Earl Warren of California, Rep. Clifford P. Case of New Jersey and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts.

The political scientists’ report echoed scholarly critiques dating back a half century, when important figures like Woodrow Wilson, then a prominent political scientist, and Herbert Croly, an important thinker in the Progressive movement and the co-founder of The New Republic, raised questions about the American party system.

“However one may deplore that system, he must concede that it has displayed, if nothing else, a very impressive ability to survive,” Austin Ranney, then a political scientist at the University of Illinois and later the chairman of the political science department at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in a contemporary critique of the 1950 report.

One reason the old system survived for so long is that the multiplicity of interests and ideologies inside American parties imposed the sorts of restraints on the majority that Americans liked, much like the checks and balances and separation of powers designed in the Constitution to protect the rights and viewpoints of the minority.

Now we have just the kind of political-party system Roosevelt and the political scientists envisioned. We are living the future, and it does not work.

A recent National Journal study showed that every Republican member of the Senate has a voting record to the right of every Democratic member of the Senate, and that only five House Republicans have a voting record to the left of Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, the Democrat with the most conservative voting record. The journal has been conducting these studies since 1982. Only once before, in 1999, did the Senate have a profile like it does today.

In an important retrospective on the 1950 political scientists’ report published on its 50th anniversary, UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair argued that the modern parties “do represent a clearer policy message than they did 50 years ago.”

She’s right. If you vote for a Republican today, you are very likely voting for a conservative, and if you vote for a Democrat you are very likely voting for a liberal. That’s clear. One other thing also is clear: The political system is a lot worse off.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His email address is dshribman@post-gazette.com.


Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 6 months ago

Political parties are talked about in this whole article as though they are somehow related to the Constitution of the United States of America and necessary for the government to function. That is not true at all, political parties are not mentioned even one single time in the Constitution of the United States of America, nor in any of its Amendments.

Political parties came into common use later. They may be necessary today, because we as a nation are facing so many decisions that must be made that there is no possible way that even an extremely well educated voter could be possibly be well informed upon all of them enough to vote wisely.

Unfortunately, in the political landscape today, there are only two that are of much significance. It is my opinion that is not good at all, there should be many that are representing different points of view, and then hopefully the leaders of our nation will be selected much more wisely than they are today.

In fact, if the leaders of our nation are not selected much more wisely in the rather near future, I really believe that we should all realize that the United States of America is not going to be in existence all that much longer. By "all that much longer", I mean perhaps a century or two, and then the whole government of the USA is going to collapse like a house of cards. I could be wrong, it might be only 20 or 30 years instead.

Although we are the nation with the most powerful military in the world today, that is meaningless when viewed in the context of history. A good example is the Roman Empire, which lasted for about 1,000 years. Although it had the most powerful military in the world at that time, the political rot from within it brought about its collapse.

Personal Opinion: The political system in the USA as it is in use today appears to be used for self aggrandizement and the accumulation of personal wealth, instead of for the wise governing of a large nation.

These are words of wisdom from one of the founders of the United States of America, and I believe that today they are of tremendous importance:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

George Washington, Farewell Address, Sep. 17, 1796

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 6 months ago

FDR may have been responsible for some of the ideological divide, but you can't explain it fully without looking at even more important and recent events. Nixon's "southern strategy" began the exodus of conservative southern Democrats, and the Powell Memo (http://reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate_accountability/powell_memo_lewis.html -- scroll down a ways to see the memo) laid the groundwork for the Reagan/Grover Norquist revolution, and the cynical co-option by Wall Street business interests of social/religious conservatism, which has somehow managed to get these mostly working class folks to consistently vote against their own best economic interests.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 6 months ago

Time to split up the party, folks. Let the D's support entitlements, the R's the banks, farmers and country clubs, the TP to support their (??) and start a "We B Rational Party" for the other 80% who just want good governance, balanced budgets and tax structures that make sense. Did anyone else see the article about the company who made 14B, paid no taxes and filed a 57 THOUSAND page report to account for all the deductions? I'd gladly pay 15% income tax with no deductions if I knew everyone else were doing the same. http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/ge-filed-57000-page-tax-return-paid-no-taxes-14-billion-profits_609137.html

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 6 months ago

If you knew what I am quite sure is true you'd be on the phone to the IRS to inform them of something that I think they would be very interested in investigating.

And, perhaps you'd also place a few long distance calls to another state, one being to the law enforcement department in the capital of that state to inform them of two felonies that have been committed there, another to the collection office of a very well known bank that is wondering how they can find about $150,000, and there's a list of others too, but I only know of one name with certainty, and that one is surely not very interested because it's only pocket change, nothing at all really, only about $12,000 or so.

The one that would be most interested is the one that is wondering how they can find $400,000 to $500,000, I've been told both numbers, and I have no way to know which is more accurate.

But almost all of the money is spent and it's gone now, leaving almost no tangible assets, so maybe that won't matter, and it's not worth the trouble now.

And also, about the phone call to the law enforcement department of that state, I really don't know if they would actually be interested, because you know how it is with white collar crime:

If you steal a million dollars on paper, you are almost certain to get away with it. Bernie Madoff was a notable exception.

But if you steal a $400 television set from Walmart, you're in big trouble!

Corruption in our nation today is so rampant that there's only one explanation for it:

Corruption is growing at the ground level, and it's so commonplace now that it's simply considered to be business as usual.

P.S. Please excuse my outburst. It's an expression of anger about being robbed of an amount that wouldn't sound significant to some, but to me it represents an incredibly large sum of money.

I suppose it is best summed up this way: When you don't have a lot of nice things, you really treasure the nice things that you do have. And it really upsets you when they are stolen from you by people that have no use for them at all.

JohnBrown 6 years, 6 months ago

The modern conservative movement began after the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. It is now at its extremis, evidenced by expelling its less pure members.

Conservatives ala Rush Limbaugh and Fox News don't want to examine facts and find solutions. Their goals are already set, it's just a matter of twisting facts to fit them.

Take 'stimulus spending' to pump up an economy in a great depression. Conservatives claim deficit spending didn't work during the 1930's, it wasn't until WWII came along that we got out of the depression.

The alternative explanation is that there wasn't enough deficit spending in the 1930's, and it was only when we were forced into more deficit spending by WWII that we finally emerged from the depression (just think of all those soldiers being hired, and all the jobs they had being replaced by 4F's or Rosie Riviter, just about everyone was put back to work). And look especially at 1937 when FDR did balance the budget and see how the depression worsened the year after.

It's the same today. Tea Baggers claim the "stimulus didn't work", when in fact, the diagnosis of the poor economy actually underrated the magnitude of the problem. The stimulus applied was not sufficient to overcome the magnitude of the problem. It wasn't that the medicine didn't work, it was a matter of not taking enough medicine to overcome the problem.

If any conservatives bother to respond to this post, look to see if they present facts and seek to discuss the issues, or if they just dumb down the discussion.

jayhawklawrence 6 years, 6 months ago

We should question the status quo and that includes the all too often practice of using FDR to explain what is happening in Year 2011.

I am very skeptical about the logic used by this columnist to explain our nation's political gridlock and I would rather we looked at the way that money and corrupted individuals in power are hurting our country and the billions of dollars being spent on election campaigns.

I believe the reason for our current gridlock is because the American people have lowered their standards and allowed politics to become controlled by money and disreputable people. They have become brainwashed by the power of political ideology and propaganda to the point where in most cases elections are not decided by character but by the size of the candidates bank account.

We need a national health care plan that works as well as a national energy policy that works. I think it is easy to see that the reason we have not had much success developing viable plans is because Congress is influenced heavily by lobbyists.

It is a problem of money and corruption, not FDR.

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