Q&A Friday #70: Why Is There So Much Hyperpartisanship?

by John Hawkins | July 27, 2007 10:48 am

Question: “Are political parties in this country too ideologically driven for their own good? Would America benefit from having parties less cohesive in their politics – i.e. a Republican party that includes not just conservatives, but liberals and moderates as well, and vice versa for the Democrats? Is the drive towards ideological purity within each party, wherein members who are out of step with party dogma are excommunicated (think Joe Liebermann), the cause of the rancid state of political discourse in the U.S.?” — maledicta

Answer: Well, the parties did used to be like that. The GOP used to have much more of a liberal and moderate contingent, and there used to be a lot of conservative Democrats. In fact, there are still some Southern Democrats who are genuinely conservative at the state level, although at the national level, the Zell Miller types are extinct.

If you want to know why things are so nasty right now, I think a number of factors are involved.

#1) Politics are cyclical and it’s not unusual for things to get nasty and then calm down later on.

#2) The political philosophies of both parties have gotten much farther apart than they used to be. Reagan moved the Republican Party significantly to the right and the Democrats have moved much, much, much further to the left than they used to be. For example, if you go back to JFK, you find a stridently anti-communist, tough on defense, pro-tax cuts Democrat who would probably be considered to the right of center today. Heck, even 10 years ago, people like Kos and Michael Moore would have been considered fringe wackos by the establishment Democrats.

#3) Bill Clinton was one of the sleaziest, least ethical, most embarrassing men ever to occupy the White House and Republicans hated and despised him far more than they ever disliked men like Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson. Don’t get me wrong — Republicans didn’t like them either, but in a real sense, they felt like Clinton actually degraded the presidency and because of that, they were particularly vicious. They investigated him relentlessly (and not surprisingly given what a slimeball Clinton was, they kept finding things) and eventually they impeached him.

When Bush took over, the Democrats were determined to go after him the same way the GOP did after Clinton and the controversial 2000 election and the war just aggravated them that much more. The GOP impeachment of Clinton has a lot to do with the Democrats’ desire to impeach Bush. If Hillary Clinton were to become the President in 2008, you can be certain that the cycle would continue.

#4) The new media has played a big role in the hyperpartisanship, too. Twenty years ago, the media was almost uniformly a bland, center-left mass of partisans masquerading as objective journalists.

But, as talk radio, the personalities on Fox, and the blogosphere moved into the breach, different viewpoints got out, political coverage became more entertaining, and a lot of different approaches were tried. It turns out that some of the most popular takes on political debate were brutal, partisan attacks and coverage of stories that the MSM would have buried in the past (The Monica Lewinsky story, the Swift Boat Veterans, the Bush was AWOL fake documents).

When the new media got too big for the mainstream media to ignore and started taking bites out of the their audience, the MSM had to start covering stories that were broken there and also, naturally, they emulated the styles they found that they thought could pull in eyeballs. As a result, what has become acceptable discourse in politics has changed quite a bit.

The left side of the blogosphere in particular has been extremely successful in pulling the Democratic Party to the left. Not that the Democrats weren’t liberal before, but the Democrats have probably moved as far to the left since 2000 as the GOP moved to the right from 1964 to 1988 — and it’s more significant for them, because this is their second “Great Leap to the Left.”

But, back to your original question.

“Are political parties in this country too ideologically driven for their own good?

Maybe. But, that’s a symptom of the hyperpartisanship, not the cause of it, and until things cool down, it will be too difficult for the parties to become ideologically diverse.

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