Polarization is what bedevils American politics, say our intellectuals. Actually, we tend to agree. Perhaps our conversation about polarization (what is it exactly?) would be clearer if we understood its roots in the early 1970s when intellectuals thought more partisanship – strengthening the role and ideological clarity of the two major political parties – would actually diminish the polarized discourse of informal groups. Consider this 1972 Atlantic essay by David Broder (this may create some cognitive dissonance!):
Is there not a better way to resolve our differences, to move ahead on our common problems? I believe there is. The instrument available to us is responsible party government. The alternative to making policy in the streets is to make it in the voting booth. But if that proposition is to be more than a cliche, there must be real choices presented at election time -choices involving more than a selection between two sincere-sounding, photogenic graduates of some campaign consultant’s academy of political and dramatic arts.
…we have not seen responsible party government in this country–in Washington or in most states and cities–in the sixteen years I have been covering national politics. Instead, we have fractured, irresponsible nonparty government, and we have paid a fearful price for it.
… The habit of partisanship, once lost, may be very difficult to regain. … More minor-party or independent candidates may find their way into Congress, weakening the existing party structure there. (Broder means this would be a bad development!)
After a lengthy and touching essay about the chaos of the 1970s, Broder offered a dozen proposed reforms, including direct election of the President, of course, all aimed at strengthening the two parties. This one stands out:
Most important of all the structural reforms, we need to follow through on the recent congressional effort to discipline the use of money in politics, by setting realistic limits on campaign spending, limiting and publicizing individual and organizational gifts and channeling much more of the money (including, in my view, all general election spending) through the respective party committees rather than through individual candidates’ treasuries.
Broder closed with a scolding of the public for splitting the ticket. “It seems to me that we should ask, before splitting a ticket, what it is we hope to accomplish by dividing between the parties the responsibility for government of our country, our state, or our community. Do we think there is no difference between the parties?” This is shockingly naive stuff. Broder imagined that creativity and energy rest with the big organization, not the entrepreneurial individual. I think it’s fair to say that Broder would have been confused by the use of the term entrepreneur in terms of politics, or my belief that individual leaders matter more for change than political dogma. Interesting stuff, in any case.
Did Broder ever look back on the 1974 campaign finance reforms, which did precisely what he hoped, and realize that giving the two parties monopoly power over money in politics had backfired?