When might the demise of single-party dominance make a democracy’s political conversations more dysfunctional? When, conversely, might we conceive of bitter partisan disputes as potential symptoms of emergent equalities (or at least increasingly contested rivalries), rather than as causes of increased political conflict inevitably to come? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Frances E. Lee. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Lee’s Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign. Lee is a professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, and the co-editor of Legislative Studies Quarterly. She is the author of Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate (2009), and co-author of Sizing Up The Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation (1999). Lee has published the textbook Congress and Its Members, and has worked on Capitol Hill as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow.
ANDY FITCH: To start with a couple everyday scenarios voters might face, let’s say that, as my electoral district grows closer to a 50/50 party split, I expect local legislative candidates to start cultivating a bipartisan tone fitting this spirit of the times, but that, instead, the opposite happens. Relatively small policy differences get exaggerated, escalating the emotional stakes, with each party claiming not only that the other does absolutely nothing right, but that it poses a danger to democracy. Or conversely, let’s say the party I just helped vote into power (a party which, while the minority opposition, had so passionately railed against present policies) basically seems to endorse those policies now that it has claimed majoritarian dominance — to take your own most pointed example, on whether the legislature should raise the debt ceiling. How might the “government versus opposition” (or in-party versus out-party) dynamic your book illustrates help to explain these puzzling outcomes?
FRANCES E. LEE: In a 50/50 district, you do expect candidates to cultivate more moderate images, to develop cross-party appeal. But in competitive races you also see more contentiousness, more harsh criticism of the opponent, more charge and counter-charge, more mudslinging. Competitive races are nastier, generally. Candidates in competitive races are not necessarily more ideologically polarized, yet the politics in these races tends to be harsh. You see that same contentiousness when parties compete for control at the institutional level. We need to distinguish between ideological polarization and the way that today’s tight competition for institutional control encourages the parties in Congress to continually denounce, blame, and criticize their opponents. Today’s toxic partisanship is in great part fueled by close competition for power, not just different opinions over the role and scope of government.
It certainly is the case that those relatively few candidates who compete in balanced districts tend to be more moderate in their profiles. But that takes us to another interesting paradox. We have ferocious competition for control of government, with an almost 50/50 split nationally. Yet most districts and states are not competitive. One party tends to dominate in most places.
Now on your point about what happens when a party takes control, and seems to embrace positions it had opposed while in the opposition: that’s a really important aspect of party politics that we tend to overlook. This is a politics of the “ins” versus the “outs,” in which the out-party capitalizes on discontent with the in-party on any number of topics. The out-party does not have to be ideologically consistent. The out-party can oppose cuts in government spending on popular programs, at the same time that it opposes budget deficits. The out-party doesn’t have to offer a coherent platform that would work. It can oppose debt-limit increases, even though failing to raise the debt limit might have wide-ranging horrible consequences for the world economy. The out-party doesn’t have to address questions about how to reconcile competing goods, how to deal with limited resources. The in-party has to answer these questions, and make hard choices. The out-party will criticize this in-party from every direction. The out-party will just throw its criticisms against the wall and see what sticks. Again, being out of power gives you that freedom.
So while we tend to think of partisan politics as imposing a set of ideological questions (with Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, having their distinct and clearly defined positions), party politics often centers instead on questions of competence and corruption. Nobody’s in favor of being incompetent. Nobody’s in favor of corruption. But the out-party regularly uses those criticisms as a way to get some traction. Both sides compete for power as much as for policy outcomes. In my work I try to get us to pay more attention to these power stakes in party politics, and how they can create partisan conflict separate from the policy questions that divide liberals from conservatives.
Now to move to a more abstracted theoretical or philosophical plane: let’s say that our democratic system takes for granted the generative operations of a political marketplace in which ideas or ideologies freely compete, a political marketplace in which no person or group holds a monopoly on power or on the best policy visions — with competition ensuring that only the strongest, most rigorously tested proposals and perspectives (those most fitting for this particular present context) will find themselves backed by voters and enacted by elected officials. Could you start to outline Insecure Majorities’ basic point that: yes, competition, perhaps including party competition, proves essential to effective democratic debate, functioning, accountability — but that increased competition doesn’t always, inevitably, bring forth increased democratic functionality? Most broadly, what thresholds of partisan corrosion might democracies need to watch out for as they seek to enhance and promote political competition?
That’s a hard question. I embrace the proposition that competition is essential for a democracy, that no party or candidate should have a monopoly on power. We need competition and open criticism in order to make accountability possible. I accept all those propositions, and yet I question the formula that more competition always makes for better politics. High levels of competition for power lead to some harmful strategic behavior. Politicians become preoccupied with their power stakes. They can’t think about long-term concerns if they always have to worry about how the next election will affect their party and often them personally. We criticize U.S. political leaders for their short-term focus. But right now, every two years, we literally have no idea which party will win power in the next election. So instead of dealing with difficult problems, legislators focus on scoring political points and hitting the other guys, on making them look bad, on partisan messaging, on steering public conversations and even policies in a favorable direction for their party.
That combative tone of the political debate has caused many voters to disengage, disgusted with the system. This constant conflict has a lot to do with the decline in public esteem for Congress, and the sense that politicians don’t work in the interest of the public good, but instead focus only on their own power and political self-interest.
Competition also reduces the incentive for the out-party to cut a deal. The minority party can expect to gain more power in the near term. So they think: Why compromise now if my party might win back power after the next election, allowing us to dictate the terms and the outcomes? So the out-party prefers to wait — hence the continuous kicking-of-the-can that we complain about in American politics, in which the major issues don’t get addressed or resolved.
Given the political instability we’ve seen in American politics for the past 35 years, I can’t help but see those patterns as some negative consequences of competition. Even though competition is essential for democratic accountability, and even though the freedom to criticize people and parties is essential to any democratic system, the intense competition that we have seen prevail in recent decades has significant downsides. Our system might in fact work better when just as free, but with one party more consistently commanding majority support, and having the trust of most Americans. Under those circumstances, this dominant party finds itself in a better position to govern, and the out-party finds itself more willing to bargain — all without some of those pathologies we’ve discussed.
Then in terms of the most recent U.S. historical model of one party’s long-lasting political dominance (the Democrats’ sustained Congressional successes from the Great Depression through the late 70s), could you start to flesh out how both the self-defined majority and minority parties acted differently than parties act today? Could you offer both positive and negative examples, on both sides — so that we don’t necessarily find ourselves consumed by nostalgia for past eras of single-party dominance? Could we consider the especially clarifying model of the House Appropriations Committee often operating more like an insular, trans-party patronage system than a space for partisan debate? And since your book does seek to include political operatives’ personal insights, reflections, strategies, would it make sense for us to consider distinct character types who might feel the greatest incentive to run for office or serve as staffers during eras of sustained majority/minority status? What specific skill sets, conceptions of power in relation to local and national constituencies, conceptions of the dignity of their office and of their broader institution, might we expect to find among individual legislators within an era of sustained party dominance (and again, how might such prevailing personal qualities differ in a more competitive partisan era like our own)?
During this era of a seemingly permanent Democratic majority, cross-party bargaining was much easier than what we’ve seen in the increasingly competitive post-1980 and post-1994 era. During the era of Democratic Party dominance, you saw many Congressional committees (with House Appropriations probably the best example) developing productive working relationships between committee chairs and their ranking members. Rather than try to develop a full-fledged alternative to what the committee chair wanted, ranking members would work cooperatively with that chair. In the contemporary era, the out-party tries to make the case to voters: “This is why you need to kick these other guys out and put us in power.” But in an environment where nobody expects the next election to change party status fundamentally, you try to get your policy preferences in the bill, rather than to develop an alternative policy vision. You bargain if you’re in the minority party, and you try to find a compromise if you’re in the majority party.
But I agree that we don’t want to get overly nostalgic about this dynamic. A majority party that can take for granted maintaining its power typically ends up mired in in-fighting. That’s, to a great extent, what characterizes the Democratic Party basically from 1937 [Laughter] through the 1970s, and so it factionalizes. In state legislatures too, a dominant party tends to get pretty factionalized. A lot of conflict still plays out in a legislature with a dominant party, but much of that conflict happens within the majority party. We shouldn’t characterize the Congress of the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s as lacking in conflict, with everybody singing kumbaya.
You also asked about particular skill sets that these eras of single-party dominance bring about, and vice versa. I’d say that an era of increased political competition brings with it politicians much more focused on messaging, and again on criticizing their rivals. At the staff level, you see Congress hiring many more folks who don’t have much policy expertise, and who instead specialize in communications. Congressional communications staffing has increased tremendously. These communications specialists work for parties. They work for committees. They even work in individual members’ offices. They’ve risen much higher in the Capitol Hill pecking order.
And then in terms of individual legislators, I suspect that you do find Congress recruiting more partisan warriors. If a politician sees himself as an eager party warrior, then maybe Congress looks like a place where he can thrive. If that’s not a politician’s cup of tea, then maybe she’d prefer to stay away or to pursue politics at some other level.
I feel this inner conflict, because I’ve wanted to give your book to one of my close friends, who would realize how smart and timely it is. But he actually works as a communications director.
Well I did a lot of interviews with communications experts. I also try to present their point of view. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just focus on the policies?” one communications staffer said to me. “It would be nice, but we don’t live in that world anymore.”
Here sticking with the world that we do live in, liberals at least often reinforce a historical narrative in which Newt Gingrich, in the build-up to 1994 Republican House victories, gradually undermined and then dismantled a more genteel, collaborative, constructive mode of political discourse and legislation. Your book, by contrast, prioritizes the Republicans’ 1980 Senate victories as a crucial turning point. As a quick institutional / electoral / psychological case-study, could you sketch how late-20th-century Republicans finally arrived at the point where they could perceive the possibility for shifts in Congressional power (an arc stretching back at least to Democratic in-fighting on Congressional institutional reforms in the 1960s)? And could you outline how both parties’ responses to that 1980 transition set the stage for more fierce partisan fighting in 1994 and far beyond?
The 1980 elections were crucial for reshaping party politics in the Senate, which still gets much less attention than Gingrich’s role in the House. And the 1980 elections were key for raising Republicans’ hopes and sights, for making them believe that they could become a national majority party again. Even in the mid-1970s, Republicans had seen themselves as a minority party. But Reagan won the national popular vote by a big margin, and his victory swept across the country. Surprisingly, Republicans even took control of the Senate. That was not expected. In the lead-up to the 1980 elections, you did not see newspapers writing stories asking: “What changes might happen if Republicans take control?” But suddenly you did have Senate Republicans holding gavels and running committees. House Republicans saw that, and saw Reagan in the White House running things, and some started to envision their own path to House control. It still took a long time for this optimistic faction of House Republicans to convince their own colleagues. A cadre mostly of young backbenchers really had to keep pressing and persisting in their beliefs through a long series of pretty frustrating intra-party elections and Congressional elections all through the 1980s. Newt Gingrich was a leader there. And over time, their efforts helped to foster and strengthen a group of Republicans who could see a path to majority status, even when they faced setbacks.
In 1984, with Reagan about to win reelection in a landslide, they thought they maybe could take the House. You can understand why. Even with their quite different styles, Reagan’s success helped give rise to Newt Gingrich and his House supporters. Why did folks join with Gingrich and the Conservative Opportunity Society? It wasn’t just Gingrich’s personality. People began to believe he was onto something.
Party politics in the Senate got tougher and more contentious throughout the 80s, with Democrats, newly in the minority, strategizing ways to put the majority Republicans on the spot, in the hopes of taking back power. Even a traditionalist and institutionalist like Robert Byrd (by no means seen as a visionary in the way Newt Gingrich was) quickly learned that, in order to make the case against Congressional Republican power, you had to initiate votes that would show the public how Democrats would do things differently. You began to see Senate Democrats deliberately staging roll-call votes designed to promote partisan conflict, forcing Republicans to vote on things like cuts to social security — anything that allowed Democrats to develop a contrasting narrative. This type of messaging politics, which since has become standard- operating procedure, began to grow in prominence back then. So you can call the Democrats themselves innovators in that regard. I find it interesting that this Senate story gets so little attention, whereas Gingrich basically gets demonized as the individual single-handedly responsible.
Yeah, I’d hope for your book to start depolarizing contemporary conversations around polarization. And I wondered how you see this book’s argument situating itself alongside work by a preceding generation of researchers, researchers who (in certain ways, at least) did not live through a contested era like our own. So could you situate your own approach in response to some crucial predecessors’, both in terms of how they helped to cultivate your own perspective, and of theoretical / circumstantial limitations you ultimately found in their perspectives? And of course I also should make it clear that Insecure Majorities (a great title, by the way) doesn’t argue that we should prioritize the impact of partisan competition over every single ideological dispute, but that we need to recalibrate and measure more precisely how a vectored convergence of such forces might play out in a particular political/personal context.
If you read the scholarly work done in the 1970s and early 1980s, you get the portrait of a Congress with weak leaders, and of parties that don’t meet as a caucus much. And even in the 70s they were meeting more frequently than they had a decade before, when they barely met at all. In the 1950s and 1960s, Democrats would meet to get the Congress organized, and then they wouldn’t meet again. Party leaders might help to broker agreements among various Congressional power centers, but didn’t really drive policy and politics. So the literature from that period focuses largely on individual members’ policy preferences. Yes, we had Republicans and Democrats, but with the Democratic Party, for example, so internally divided, it seemed better to try to understand Congressional politics by asking: “What do various individual members want?” And of course liberal and conservative categories didn’t always overlap with being a Democrat or a Republican.
That world, the world where that methodological framework made sense, did not have majority status consistently in play. The Democrats could seemingly take for granted their secure majority status, and so they didn’t have as much common incentive to work together internally. They didn’t seem to possess a set of collective and common stakes. Likewise, minority Republicans didn’t see as much reason to develop a party position, set up votes to contrast their perspectives, distinguish how they differ from the party in power.
Now the parties meet in caucus more than once a week! They have additional meetings on controversial issues. In the Senate they’ll schedule a party meeting of some kind for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday when Congress is in session. What creates the common interests that bring fellow partisans together into such close cooperation? I think it’s the rivalries for power pervading our politics in a way they just did not 50 years ago. Under present circumstances, you don’t want any division existing within your party to become public. You want intra-party deliberation happening in caucus instead of on the floor. We don’t really see them on the floor, but there are a lot of strong divisions within the Republican Party right now. They fight it out in party meetings — while trying to present a unified front in public. Under competitive political circumstances, that does appear to be the better strategy. Democrats now do the same thing. You can go back to the 70s, and Democrats seem then just to be letting it all hang out. All those intra-party divisions played out in public. But today, if you want to develop a model or a theoretical framework for understanding Congress, you probably won’t put so much emphasis on individual members’ publicly stated policy preferences. Right now, for example, some Republicans still strongly support free trade, but we can barely see that in roll-call votes.
So in terms of a pessimistic reading of present-day legislative politics, we also could consider how post-1980 partisan warriors (particularly those firing up their donor base) often have risen to party leadership positions, how increasingly common partisan roll-call votes have dumbed down floor debate (with such bills often unproductively framed as moralizing “yes” or “no” hypotheticals, rather than as realistic implementable policy proposals, and with legislators often not even bothering to inform themselves about such bills’ details before voting on them). We could discuss the maddening circumstances by which majority-party legislators from the most moderate districts often find themselves under the harshest attack from the opposition (as, presumably, the most vulnerable candidates in the next election), or by which a rookie legislator receives the advice from more seasoned veterans always to vote against the bills that pass, and to vote for the bills that fail — and all of this, again, amid a bicameral system actively demanding broadly cooperative, consensus-based legislative processes. And if you’d like a more concrete question here: I understand the rationale, but nonetheless kept sensing the bitter irony, in your book framing bipartisan cooperation as a pursuit of “short-term” gain (everybody agreeing to get something done), and strident partisan dispute as a pursuit of “long-term” gain (positioning one’s associates for the next election cycle). But in terms of the internalized intraparty dissent you just hinted at, when, if ever, do you see individuals, coalitions, parties asking themselves: what is this all for in the end? When will sustained dominance arrive for us, in which all of this partisan bickering will redeem itself through the passage and ongoing implementation of essential policy?
I’d say most members actually remain hopeful that things will get better. Typically, this thought will take some form of: If we can get our strategy in place right now, we’ll be much better off for the future. They often even see that future as just around the corner [Laughter]. I think many probably would find it hard to keep doing this work if they didn’t think it would achieve something. So I do still see hopefulness. We might think of it as a tough, partisan type of hopefulness, which focuses on winning and then being able to do what we want to do. I’d consider that the prevailing outlook.
Of course you do also find frustration. A lot of legislators will say: “This is really terrible right now. We only care about politics. Can’t we actually do some real policy-making? Can’t we stop messaging and try to address the country’s problems?” You see a lot of that complaining about the present — but again, often still with hope about the future. They haven’t given up. If you’ve given up, why stay in Congress? There are much easier and more lucrative lines of work.
Of course my somewhat desperate pleading for reassuring alternate approaches here comes in part out of the historical convergence of intensified party polarization and of what Bill Bishop famously dubbed our demographic Big Sort, combining to make it feel to many Americans that we now are living through a socio-cultural-political conflict almost between two separate countries. Your book, again, largely focuses on empirical measurements of party mechanisms, but does at times traffic in the personal — as when, for instance, you cite researchers’ speculations on how elite partisanship has intensified ordinary citizens’ partisan identities. So to start picking up that more personalized line of thought, where might you detect a direct correlation between zero-sum party rhetoric and an individual voter’s zero-sum political mindset? How might you parse causes and symptoms among, say, historically high levels of partisan competition, and present-day populist opposition to immigration, free-trade, institutionalized international cooperation (or, by comparison, progressive intellectuals often now dismissing any universalizing or integrationist rhetoric)? Can we point to post-1980 partisanship anticipating, preceding, helping to shape subsequent cultural divides? Or could cultural historians just as easily make the case that exacerbated 1960s social tensions couldn’t help but produce the increasingly embittered politics of the 1980s?
Well one thing I find so fascinating about social polarization in the 1960s (around the Vietnam War, women’s roles in society, Civil Rights) is that you see society get polarized without any corresponding partisan polarization. These issues internally divide both parties. In fact, societal polarization and inter-party polarization do not inevitably go together.
I’d say, on a societal level, we don’t face the same social polarization today that we saw in the 1960s. But we do have much more party polarization. People who affiliate or identify with a party have a much more negative view of the opposing party than they used to. And political leaders’ opinions today definitely polarize the parties in a way we did not see in the 1960s or 70s.
Of course, as your question suggests, researchers struggle when they try to sort out causes and effects of partisan polarization. Public-opinion data seems to show that an increase in individual citizens’ hostility and even hatred towards the opposing party has come about more recently than the tense inter-party conflict in Congress. Party conflict in Congress hits its nadir in the 70s. Party conflict has risen ever since, with both parties more internally unified in roll-call voting, with more votes pitting the overwhelming majority within one party against the overwhelming majority within the other.
The public still hasn’t reached the same level of polarization as political elites. But citizens have taken cues from polarized political elites. All the investment that the parties have sunk into harshly partisan messaging and Congressional debates filters down into Republican voters seeing Democratic voters more negatively, and vice versa. We’ve also seen broader societal transformations, such as the realignment of the South — driven at first by the breakup of the New Deal coalition, and maybe since then reinforced by much stronger party messaging. So we do have to factor in multiple long-term historical trajectories shaping our current moment. My book emphasizes one factor that so far hasn’t received enough attention, this remarkably competitive period in our national politics. The closest precedent was the last two decades of the 19th century, between 1876 and 1896, before Republicans gained the majority status that they largely maintained until the New Deal coalition. But we’re now coming up on four decades of close competition between the two parties. That long span has set in motion a whole lot of new standard-operating procedures, institutional practices, political incentives, all of which just strengthen each other over time. I encourage researchers to attend to that part of our contemporary political context — not just to recent decades’ social transformation, but to the political transformations that have occurred, and how those also matter for understanding our current predicament.
Here again though I can’t help fusing some of this book’s observations on party trends with observations on broader demographic trends, and all under the sign of your canny Insecure Majorities title. That title makes me think, for example, of America’s white population sensing its own majoritarian status coming to a close (with the majority of whites, according to polls, mistakenly assuming that they already have lost their majority status). More broadly, I can’t help projecting (from your much more methodologically rigorous and circumspect argument) the implicit thesis that if increased competition creates politically “insecure majorities” at the legislative level, then a reduction or loosening or sustained critique of racial inequalities, strict gender dichotomies, unreflective heteronormative assumptions, might produce structurally similar (if much more psychological, tacit, often unacknowledged) “insecurities” particularly among, say, older white men — certainly not the most vulnerable citizens in our society, but those most recently introduced to the vulnerabilities that social competition can bring. And similarly, just as “minority” parties have historically found themselves galvanized when glimpsing prospects for transformative change, we might expect a rising momentum and assertiveness among those Americans classified as demographic “minorities” who sense a greater possibility than ever before to unsettle long-static power relations. So here would it interest you to speculate, however provisionally, on how we perhaps should expect the dissolution of social hierarchies (like the dissolution of single-party dominance) not to bring forth a more harmonious civic discourse, but in fact a newly combative one (in some ways freshly defensive, possessive, mean-spirited)? And even amid such ugly, divisive public dialogues, should we likewise always keep in mind that the very intensity of the discussion, the very moment when a dispute feels the most irresolvable, might in fact suggest that we find ourselves on the cusp of some new and unprecedented equalities — which again maybe just can’t come into being in some more stately fashion?
Those questions do make a great deal of sense. They take up both the work of political science and of psychology. My book focuses on the political world — how competition for political power shapes elected officials’ political incentives and behavior, what it leads them to do or to contemplate, how it changes their strategic calculus. You’re now pointing to a psychology of insecurity, specifically regarding social status. And I won’t take any hardline stance and say that we have to keep the political and psychological realms totally separate, that you can’t generalize from politics to psychology, and vice versa. It remains an open question how closely these fields connect, and how researchers might connect them. As a political scientist, I fear to tread into a world of expertise carved out by my colleagues in psychology. I feel a little uncomfortable venturing into status-politics and sociology. But I do think we can speculate on how the decline or loss of a white majority probably does play into the composition of our political parties, and how they position themselves on a societal level. The Republican Party has become more white than the country as a whole, and that trend has accelerated over the past 20 years. The Democratic Party has increasingly become more non-white than the country as a whole. This racial divide between the parties keeps getting greater. You’d expect, under those circumstances, a more racialized party politics — with that trend detrimental to democracy, with those parties operating more as ethnic parties. We do see trends in that direction, and the Trump Presidency certainly might exacerbate these trends. And when you mix in contentious, closely competitive politics, you get quite a cocktail.
Here then to think through also a potentially more optimistic reading of your book, I personally would start from the dispiriting fact that the first Congressional initiative openly described as a “messaging vote” came from one of the senators I admire most historically, Paul Wellstone. This unpleasant association helped me finally to accept your broader point that dysfunctional Congressional tactics implicate both sides, with all such stunts ideological neutral, with any innovative (perhaps ultimately corrosive) partisan tactic just as easily exploited by one’s rivals. From this more detached perspective, we perhaps can better recognize that the adolescent ferocity of partisan fights does not necessarily confirm any foundational ideological irreconcilability, that we might in fact not face an Armageddon between left and right, or wrong and right — that even empirical measurements of legislative voting patterns might fail to account for when procedural antics make policy discussions feel more polarized than they really are. So does that overall response seem Pollyannaish on my part? To what extent do you see this book’s findings pointing to inevitable further-intensified partisan clashes to come (unless or until one party rises to noncompetitive dominance)? Conversely, to what extent could the data this book provides indicate the emergence of new modes of equality, hopefully helping to resolve certain national divides, even as subsequent tensions flare up? Is there at least grounds for optimism in us potentially recognizing that: yes, we do see significant dysfunctionalities and even pathologies distorting our present politics, but that, sometimes at least, these might be different problems than the ones we had thought we faced?
For one optimistic takeaway from the book, I would go back to the fact that both parties, under present circumstances, have great incentives to exaggerate their differences. They use apocalyptic rhetoric in order to excite voters. Under our competitive circumstances, they exaggerate the partisan stakes in ways that can really frighten voters. Fear is a great mobilizer. Parties use that fear. When parties find themselves locked in the type of intense power struggle we’ve seen in recent decades, they’ll use every tool at their disposal to try to win. So I don’t want to downplay that tough power struggle, but one implication is that we might not be as divided as we seem.
A second implication here is that we need to take a step back and try to gain more objectivity about what’s happening. We can’t just accept one side’s narrative about what’s at stake. We need to recognize that both sides have their ulterior political motives, if you will, in the narratives that they tell or advance. We need to maintain a little distance.
My book isn’t moralistic in tone or implication. It considers current circumstances and asks: “How do these circumstances shape our politics?” It’s analytical and descriptive. No one is going to read this book and rush out to the ramparts [Laughter]. You won’t find in it any clear call to action. You won’t find any particular reform agenda, in part because I don’t seen any straightforward solutions, short of one party regaining the confidence of a stable majority of the electorate.
Right now, we basically have two minority parties. Neither party can win the support and the confidence of enough Americans to get a firm hold on power. And I don’t think we’ll find any shortcut out of these circumstances. But we can start to understand them better. That’s one important aspect of what I see political science doing, and what I myself try to do as an analyst. I don’t work at an ideological think tank. I work in a university. I try to write analytical, not agenda-driven books. But I suppose one moral takeaway from my research is to suggest that politicians have strong incentives to exaggerate the stakes in contemporary politics, as a way to fire us up, and that we need to recognize that this is at least part of what’s going on in our angry, heated, divisive politics.
To bring this discussion back around then to a more current political context, I don’t find much evidence that our present Congressional majorities have in fact taken on the burdens of governing more responsibly than their out-party rivals, staking out the higher ground and pursuing bipartisan support for sober pro-social policy. Instead I see a disturbing development in which the sloppily drafted, haphazardly informed legislative process that you describe playing out on party-messaging votes actually seems to have gotten replicated amid the most substantial policy initiatives of this present Congress: the scandalously incompetent and nontransparent efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and to rewrite tax policy. And again, maybe my own inner partisan takes over here, but I fear that the fundamental norm-breaking by which the Republican Party denied Obama’s Merrick Garland pick (and now feels rewarded for having done so) might have further eroded any remaining concerns about facing future public accountability for not legislating responsibly. Does any of that fit your own assessment of Congressional activity since you finished writing Insecure Majorities?
One very interesting development since this book’s publication is that we’ve been given this amazing illustration of the differences between messaging and governing. The most important issue for Republican Party messaging, all through the Obama years, was opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the need to repeal and then to replace this act. If you look at Congressional activity on this issue during those years, you find dozens of repeal votes. You would think the Republican Party was entirely unified on its policy stance. But when put in a position to govern and actually decide among competing goods, tough choices, trade-offs that real policies must address, the Republicans didn’t have answers. They had slogans. They had no shared set of priorities and programmatic goals to implement. As an out-party, they had criticized the ACA from every possible direction. It doesn’t cover everybody. It costs too much. There were a million different lines of criticism.
So your question again highlights this difference between messaging and governing. When I would give presentations as I worked on this book, people often asked me: “Is the Republican majority in Congress really insecure? Haven’t they gerrymandered themselves into permanent-majority status?” And I answered then, as I would answer now: “Let’s see if the Republican majority can stand up to an unpopular Republican president in midterm elections.” We still don’t know how much of that Republican advantage in Congressional elections stemmed from the fact that Democrats held the presidency during the Obama years. Gerrymandering definitely plays an important part, but off-year Congressional elections tend to offer something like a referendum on the president. Obama’s approval ratings, though higher than Trump’s, were not very high in 2010 or 2014. I’d say Republicans have worried about the 2018 elections ever since they took office. That all contributed to the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. They felt like they had to do something. They’d spent all of 2017 on a failed effort to repeal and replace the ACA. They couldn’t just go home with nothing. To a great extent I think many members were not voting on policy, but mostly just thinking: We can’t go back empty-handed. It is probably the case that they only could push through some of those controversial changes to tax policy because they found themselves up against the wall, with so little to show for an entire first session of Congress under Trump.
To close then, I guess I can’t help settling more fully back into polarized mode, and speculating that a party committed to minimal, decentralized government inevitably will take destructive partisan tactics much farther (as, from my perspective, Republicans no doubt do) than a party which views government as a constructive civic force. Or I’ll note your own book’s point that Democrats do in fact remain somewhat more responsible amid both parties’ crass inconsistencies on Congressional debt-ceiling votes. Or I’ll wonder if Republicans just have a permanent post-1970’s head start on institutionalizing aggressive partisan tactics into standard party operations, or if a more authoritarian sensibility leads to more successfully unified political messaging (just as Democrats’ fetishization of dissent perhaps impedes their own intra-party consensus-building). So what do you think? Should I give up entirely my sense of one side acting more partisan than its rival here? And does anybody ever make a conservative, taxpayer-centric critique of our wasteful public expenditure on all of these communications strategies polarizing our conversations and producing pointless floor votes — basically taking for granted the existence of bloated self-perpetuating legislative institutions, with no concern about whether these institutions actually improve the lives of citizens? I sense, for instance, easy analogies to a nation facing an obesity crisis while subsidizing the incessant production of high-fructose corn syrup.
My research just doesn’t speak to questions of asymmetric polarization, or whether the Republican Party is more partisan, more ideological, or more norm-breaking than the Democratic Party. My analysis instead focuses on the symmetric incentives both parties have to win and hold political power. Given that, I’m just not in a good position to comment on differences between the parties.
I am struck by the fact that there is literally no public attention to reducing the large share of congressional staffers who work in communications. They are taxpayer-funded legislative-branch staffers, but they are also political actors continually trying to shape partisan narratives in the news media. In this sense, one might say that we already have, to some extent, public financing of political campaigns.