Our role in America's political divide

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2011 - 9:13 PM
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Americans don't agree on much these days, but most concur on this:

The nation is suffering from a lack of fearless, principled leadership (on "my" side of the ideological divide), and from an epidemic of extremism (on the "other" side).

We need more commanding, butt-kicking, arm-twisting change agents (on "my" side) as well as more responsible compromisers focused on the greater good (on the "other" side).

Anybody disagree? Didn't think so.

Now, here's the thing: Americans are basically right about what's missing, what's paralyzing our politics. What they don't fully grasp is that it's their own damn fault.

American governments are dysfunctional today for the simple reason that the country is too evenly divided. We are in an historically abnormal period of political stalemate, in which neither major party can get (or long keep) unquestioned control of all the levers of government.

American political history never really had an era of high-minded eagerness to "work together." And it never really had leaders whose force of personality mysteriously soothed the savagery of opponents.

What it did have were many periods when one party or the other won repeated crushing victories at the polls, after which both commanding leadership and cooperation tended to blossom.

Consider President Obama's troubles. Many on the left are exasperated with him, having hoped he would be another Franklin Roosevelt, or at least a Lyndon Johnson. For good or ill, FDR and LBJ often steamrolled conservative opponents, dramatically and lastingly expanding the role of the federal government in American life.

What did they have that Obama lacks? Eloquence? Convictions? Ruthlessness? No. They had overwhelming superiority in political support, that's what.

Democrats utterly dominated both houses of Congress throughout the Roosevelt and Johnson presidencies. During the New Deal era, FDR was backed by Democratic majorities as large as 333-89 in the House of Representatives and 75-17 in the Senate.

 In his first two years, Obama had 256 allies in the House and (only for a short time) 60 in the Senate. Johnson's congressional majorities were smaller than FDR's, but he never had less than 64 senators, and he had 68 the year they enacted Medicare.

This year and next, of course, Obama must contend with a Republican-controlled House. Divided government, once rare, has become the norm in our 50-50 era.

Between 1900 and the end of Lyndon Johnson's tenure, one party or the other controlled the whole federal government -- the White House and both houses of Congress -- for 54 of 68 years, about 80 percent of the time. Since then, we've had one-party government for just 14 of 44 years, less than one-third of the time.

In short, Americans in the past made up their minds -- at least for stretches of time. That's what usually produced heroic leaders and meek, mild, reasonable opponents.

In our era, the parties are given slim majorities that are soon snatched away. That's what produces cautious, rope-a-dope leaders and belligerent critics always trying for the knockout punch.

And this isn't just a phenomenon of national politics, as Wisconsin is busy showing. Seven legislative recall elections have been held by the Badger State so far (two more are to come), in the climax of a nine-month political donnybrook featuring mass protests, fugitive legislators and brawling Supreme Court justices.

Inspired by a bruising assault on state spending and public-employee unions from GOP Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the legislature, the big-buck backlash elections have produced -- well, not much, beyond a bit more of a stalemate.

One would have to concede that Walker's leadership agenda has been tolerably bold. So, initially, was Obama's. But like Obama, Walker has not exactly inspired from his opponents the sweet spirit of cooperation and compromise.

Two GOP senators were ousted last week, but the Republicans will maintain narrow control. Number cruncher Nate Silver at the New York Times reports that, taken together, the six recall elections last week show the GOP vote in those districts dropping by just under 3 percentage points from Walker's solid win last November.

If that change of heart lasts and translates statewide (big "ifs," as Silver notes), it could be important in future Wisconsin elections (including a possible recall of Walker). But it merely moves the state back to a dead-even, too-close-to-call split.

Looking on the bright side, the Wisconsin State Journal suggested in a editorial republished on these pages that the recall outcome could spur moderation, being "far from a backlash, yet not a ringing endorsement, either."

But couldn't one just as easily say that Wisconsin voters delivered both a backlash and a ringing endorsement -- with no decision between the two?

"No decision," of course, is also where Minnesota is stuck. This summer's state government shutdown fueled a lot of indignation over our politicians' terminal case of gridlock.

It just might have something to do with Minnesota voters producing a generation of divided control over state government, and with the fact that the last two major statewide elections (U.S. Senate, 2008; governor, 2010) were dead heats, decided only by recounts.

The structure of America's political system, with its tangle of checks and balances, was ingeniously designed to restrain even huge majorities from running roughshod over dissenters.

So it is frankly hard to be confident that either bold leadership or compromise is likely so long as the American electorate remains so indecisive.

All this raises an excellent question: Why we are so closely divided in our time?

I'm working on that. For now I'm only certain (as I'm sure you are) that it must be the other side's fault.

D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor.

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