Asymmetrical Polarization and Common Ground

William Galston and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution (via Steve Benen) recently published a dissection of the “asymmetrical polarization” of the two major American political parties:

More than 70 percent of Republicans in the electorate identify themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 40 percent of rank-and-file Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal. It is far easier for congressional Republicans to forge and maintain a united front than it is for Democrats. George W. Bush pushed through his signature tax cuts and Iraq war authorization with substantial Democratic support, while unwavering Republican opposition nearly torpedoed Barack Obama’s health-reform legislation. When Democrats are in the majority, their greater ideological diversity combined with the unified opposition of Republicans induces the party to negotiate within its ranks, producing policies that not long ago would have attracted the support of a dozen Senate Republicans.

Galston and Mann note that this polarization is reflected in a lack of ideological overlap in Congress. Even the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican, a stark division made clear in support for health care reform. Political polarization is also reflected in geographical divides: Americans tend to want to live in areas where most people share their ideology. That leads to more “safe” seats, and hence more incentives to play to the ideological base.

But as Galston and Mann remind their readers, this isn’t an equally distributed phenomenon. They point in particular to Republican leaders’ endorsement of the Tea Party movement over and against those they feel are insufficiently conservative. Benen echoes the point: it’s hardly accurate to say that both Democrats and Republicans are carrying out “ideological purges,” if for no other reason than that Democratic primary challengers haven’t actually been that far apart from the incumbents they’ve targeted. Even Connie Saltonstall, who was set to challenge Bart Stupak before he dropped out of the race, was not very different from Stupak on most issues, the biggie being reproductive rights.

Now, Galston and Mann (and Benen) are talking about differences between the parties, but there are similar problems within the Democratic party (which, as noted, has a much broader ideological span than the Republicans). These problems affect how the Democrats forge internal coalitions, as well as external. I have often been critical of so-called “common ground” approaches to contemporary politics, especially the variety pushed by centrist religious voices, and particularly around the issue of abortion. This is why. I understand the common ground strategy as a matter of principle, but all too often it is deployed in service of an illusive moderation. A good example of how this works comes from Jim Wallis’ positions on health care reform. He started properly, in my opinion, by calling out Republican fealty to the gospel of Ayn Rand. But then came the Stupak amendment, and Wallis griped about the confrontation it provoked:

Those shepherding this bill never invested the political capital required to resolve differences and bring the sides together. Moderates were squeezed out of the process and accused of being traitors or stooges. Worse yet, moderate pro-life forces that were really committed to health care reform were accused of not being so if they didn’t go along with the deal that the pro-choice forces had worked out. When compromises were suggested, they were rejected because both sides thought they had the votes. I heard that directly from both sides. But in the end, only one side did: the pro-life side. The problem with not compromising is that when you lose, you can end up with less than you might have gotten otherwise. The now-famous Stupak amendment is clearly closer to the pro-life community’s understanding of what “neutrality” means than the pro-choice community’s. But it is clearly not the caricature it is now being made into by the losing side of the vote, some of whom are now referring to it as “the coat hanger amendment” suggesting that it is designed to push women into back alleys again for illegal abortions by denying them access to legal abortion; it certainly is not.

Wallis’ analysis fails on at least three grounds. First of all, there wasn’t a broad middle concerned about abortion. A majority of Americans believe that abortion shouldn’t be covered in health care reform, but only 3% cited it as their primary objection to the reform plan. More to the point, recent shifts in public opinion on abortion has been driven by conservative radicalization, not moderates forging middle ground on the issue. Finally, only a small minority of Americans believe that abortion should be always illegal. As it happens, that’s Wallis’ position, and that of the Catholic Bishops. Stupak found out how intransigent the Bishops were willing to be on this point only too late. And all of this is not to mention the asymmetry of violence when it comes to reproductive rights.

Understanding all this, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that abortion was only a pretext to scotch health care reform. That much seemed obvious to me, among many others. Yet you’d never know it from reading Wallis. According to him, what nearly brought down the biggest step forward for the working poor in a generation wasn’t conservative intransigence but a shared inability of ideologues to forge a sensible compromise. Hell, if anything Wallis blames pro-choicers for the confrontation.

The upshot is that the strategy of making nice with conservatives – particularly social conservatives – in the service of a “broader agenda” aren’t particularly effective. There just aren’t that many moderates on social issues to forge compromise with, and the attempt to “split the difference” only allows hard-liners to falsely depict themselves as more reasonable than they really are.

To put it as so many others have, when you define compromise as halfway between one side that’s more or less stable and another that is becoming ever-more radical, you’re favoring that second side by moving the center point in their direction. That’s a losing political strategy, which is one thing. But it’s also a damn shame, in that social issues are commonly used to cover up for economic differences. Better to forgo the missing common ground and just get on with things.