It’s been just over two years since a pair of the country’s leading students of Congress, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, announced their conclusion that both sides are not equally to blame; Republicans are the problem. But because the “plague on both houses” complaint has stayed such a popular flavor of critique, we have to keep reminding ourselves of the facts of what Ornstein and Mann call asymmetric polarization.
Schindler’s piece doesn’t work very well as a diagnosis of our current political discourse. He does highlight some views held by some people on the left and right that are misperceptions or mischaracterizations. Yes, some left- and right-wingers get each other wrong, or distort things to puff themselves up, or make presumptuous claims to speak for the American people. If you want to claim partisan rancor is blocking us from reaching solutions to our problems, though, you have give us ideological views that are actually getting in the way of reaching, you know …
Take Schindler’s analysis of the debate on guns, the stakes of which have been tragically highlighted yet again by this weekend’s violence in Isla Vista, California. On the political right, he duly points out the denial of the very real havoc that results from a country awash in firearms. On the other side, “the Left will not acknowledge that lots of law-abiding Americans have perfectly legitimately [sic] reasons to have guns.” I don’t know about “the Left,” but certainly there are Blue State city dwellers who view gun ownership as a weird fetish. Having spent the bulk of my years in the Acela-serviced Corridor and the past decade in Wisconsin, where deer season is like the high holy days, I recognize the cultural divide Schindler is talking about.
But it’s quite a stretch, to lump together myopic segments of the right and left and blame both sides for gun control gridlock. Trying to paint the gun debate as a standoff between two absolutist positions obscures the fact that only one side in this fight is absolutist. This isn’t an all-or-nothing debate, with Democrats insisting that personal firearms be banned or confiscated. The questions on the table have been about universal background checks, the gun show loophole, and high-capacity magazines. Please tell me how Democrats share blame for blocking these sorts of practical measures.
Next there is Schindler’s depiction of the debate over health care reform, which is worth quoting at length:
[T]he Left pretends that [the ACA] is a radical step forward to justice, when actually it is a very modest reform of the existing – exceedingly, unsustainably expensive – system, based largely on onetime GOP proposals, while the Right is in high dudgeon mode over this allegedly vast expansion of state power, when really it’s a huge gift to the insurance industry (a Republican stalwart). Moreover, the ACA manages to do the nearly impossible, namely increasing access to healthcare only very modestly, at considerable taxpayer expense, while doing essentially nothing about controlling spiraling costs, not least because that would upset trial lawyers (a Democratic constituency).
One of the main complaints of Schindler’s post is about the condescending way ideologues on the right and left talk about common Americans. Yet here he is, shrugging off reforms that keep millions of our citizens from being bankrupted by medical bills, letting their cancer go untreated, or having to rely on emergency rooms or community health clinics for sporadic care. I dare say those ordinary folk don’t consider the expansion of access to be merely modest.
Almost 50 years passed in between Medicare and the ACA. Seven presidents and 21 Congresses of both parties had their chances to enact health care reform. Nice as it is to imagine a coolly rational overhaul of the existing system, are massive economic systems ever reformed by going back to the designing board?
As with gun control, it’s hard to blame left-wing ideology for Obamacare’s limitations. I’m not even sure what sort of ideology Schindler is ascribing to the left; how is it ideological to celebrate an extension of the social safety net? Oh, and that claim about malpractice insurance and litigation as major drivers of health costs was debunked years ago; it’s actually less than one percent of the total.
There is an ideology that constrained the health reform debate, gun control, and a lot more of the American political agenda — and it isn’t leftist. The ACA relies on private insurers because the relentless right wing drumbeat against government leaves little room to propose governmental action or regulation in any policy sphere. For the last 35 to 40 years — and with mounting stridency and corporate underwriting—movement conservatives have steadily hammered home a delegitimizing anti-government agenda. With the eventual result that they dominate the Republican party and put even moderate liberalism on the defensive.
Just look at country’s top challenge of the last six years: recovery from the Great Recession. Every post-Hoover president of both parties has used government spending during recessions to make up for weak private sector demand and stimulate recovery. Driven by their belief that government cannot have a positive relationship to the economy, today’s right-wing ideologues convinced Americans, against all evidence, that “the stimulus didn’t work.”
I want to believe in our two-party system. In the foreign policy discipline in which Schindler and I both work, I have actually led some significant bipartisan consensus-building initiatives. To a certain degree, I agree with Schindler’s call for liberals to realize we share the country with our conservative brothers and sisters. Many times I have said to my friends on the left that we can’t expect America to have the same policies as Sweden or Denmark (nice as that might be).
But the system can only work if we debate and decide our policies, as the saying goes, “between the 40-yard lines.” In the current climate, we have to stop expecting Democrats to fight between our own 35- and 40-yard lines. And we must recognize that many Republicans keep lining up right by the end zone.
Photo: Shutterstock/Christos Georghiou