Fix Polarization with More Partisanship: David Broder, 1972

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?

2 responses to “Fix Polarization with More Partisanship: David Broder, 1972

  1. The cause of increased polarization and partisanship is severe political gerrymandering. With gerrymandering (and technology has made this more surgical than in the past), an electoral district is drawn to put a sufficiently large majority of people of one political persuasion into each district. This rewards candidates who campaign for one political side of issues, and the more stridently, the more successful they are. As a consequence, voters with opposing views are made irrelevant. A secondary affect is that the geographic ties of a community are also irrelevant.
    This results in neighbors who shop, work, play, and pray together not being able to vote together, as political tendancies, the most invisible division in our communities, are deemed more important than these other factors in determining an electoral community. We would be better served by having the class of a good social studies teacher redraw political boundaries, rather than the politicians.

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