Big Bang Theory Of Polarization: How Gridlock Has Remade Our Political Process

Even with the distractions of a possible partial government shutdown, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and the annual red-meat banquet of CPAC, there’s been a buzz in the chattering classes about a provocative article by Matt Yglesias at Vox with the even more provocative headline: “American democracy is doomed.”

Viewing the recent history of polarization and gridlock in U.S. politics and government through the hypothesis of the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz that presidential systems of government like ours are prone to catastrophic breakdowns, Yglesias argues that only the bygone non-ideological character of U.S. parties—fighting more about patronage than policy—has disguised the weakness of a system designed more to prevent than to enable stable governing majorities. Now, he fears, we are no more than a crisis away—say, another disputed presidential election—from the system breaking down or perhaps wearing out as the parties seek increasingly extra-constitutional ways of imposing their will on the country.

Also at Vox, Dylan Matthews responded to Yglesias by arguing that gridlock will produce a gradual expansion of presidential powers that will reduce the odds of a complete breakdown. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat more or less agrees, suggesting we may be entering a period of “constitutional decadence” where executive overreach is tolerated. But while Douthat thinks progressivism’s tendency to resist “reforms” of cherished government programs exacerbates the problem, New York’s Jonathan Chait argues that the radical anti-government sentiments of American conservatism, not our system, is the root problem. The demographic problems of the Republican Party will, he hopes, eventually force it to reach beyond their party’s government-hating white conservative base and restore a less polarized atmosphere.

For the record, I don’t think we’re going to have a military coup or violent revolution here (even though Second Amendment enthusiasts have been preparing for one or the other more and more openly of late). But I think even those eventualities are more likely than the United States “peacefully replacing our current system with one less likely to fail us,” as Matthews suggests. Yglesias notes post-World War II Germany and Japan as salutary examples of countries that did adopt entirely new systems almost overnight under pressure from the United States. But unless the United States wages and loses a major war and is occupied by someone capable of trashing the existing system, it’s hard to see that happening.

The only other way to, say, introduce a parliamentary system in the U.S. would be via an Article V Constitutional Convention, the device some conservatives are contemplating as a way to impose a balanced budget constitutional amendment and/or some kind of permanent spending restraint. The main (and so far persuasive) argument against resorting to such a vehicle is that it’s unclear an Article V convention could be limited to a single issue once it had convened. But an Article V convention called to adopt an entirely different political system would be by its nature unlimited and uncontrollable, unless a new Constitution had been written up and signed off on by the convening states and all potential delegates. The odds of that happening are somewhere between nil and void.

So as someone who doesn’t think our system will entirely break down, and doesn’t think we can “fix” it in any comprehensive way, what do I think is likely to happen?

My most immediate concern, because we can already see it happening, is that partisan/ideological gridlock will feed on itself. As routine policy accomplishments achieved piecemeal via the normal legislative process fade, people in both parties will increasingly focus on taking full advantage of rare governing opportunities produced by exceptional electoral victories to shoot for the moon. After all, as Democrats discovered in 2010, House majorities and Senate supermajorities can be lost instantly. So a maximalist approach when in power—as ideologues of the left and the right invariably call for—could become routine, encouraging the “losing” party at such junctures to obstruct as much of the governing party’s agenda as possible and to pursue their own shoot-the-moon strategies in the future.

Call it the Big Bang Theory of Polarization. The only limitation on its operation, of course, is that winning the big electoral victories necessary to pull off an ideological Big Bang could require the kind of flexibility that thwarts ideologues. That is indeed Chait’s hope. But it ignores the possibility of a two-track partisan strategy based squarely on deception.

In 2012, for example, Republicans were planning a post-election agenda based on implementing the audacious Paul Ryan budget and the repeal of Obamacare in one budget reconciliation bill—even as Mitt Romney was on the campaign trail posing as the soul of moderation. Something very similar actually happened in 2001, when the “humble” and “pragmatic” George W. Bush, that supposed paragon of bipartisanship in Texas, took office after a disputed presidential campaign and immediately pursued a tax package that shaped all domestic politics for at least a decade.

And after 9/11, of course, Bush also launched one or two (depending on how you reckon Afghanistan) “wars of choice”—because he could. Perhaps Chait is right that the demographic foundation for this kind of Rovian politics of saying one thing on the campaign trail and then doing five things in office is eroding. But don’t forget the power of Republicans at the state level to continuously shore up that foundation by making it harder for young people and minorities to vote. And it’s also worth remembering that governance-enabling landslides are as often the product of external circumstances and coincidences—you know, the much-discussed fundamentals—as of moderate appeals to swing voters that are implemented by bipartisan governance.

So we should all be aware that underneath the surface, many reasonable-sounding partisans in both camps may be dreaming of the next election being 1980 (for Republicans) or 1964 or 2008 (for Democrats); the singular event that will shape years of future gridlock by moving the goal posts a good twenty yards in one fell swoop. For the more open ideologues, this will become a standard demand: Win this one and then sack Washington like Visigoths.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.