Two cheers for “polarization”

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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The Fallacy of Anti-Polarization: Ron Brownstein gets pissy about Gov. Walker’s Wisconsin victory: Sure Walker’s plan “undeniably brought some needed changes,” giving local governments the flexibility to negotiate “more-reasonable” union contracts. But Walker didn’t “balance” that with higher taxes on “the affluent or corporations.” It was all so “tumultuous”! Brownstein contrasts Wisconsin’s budget solution with Connecticut’s, where Gov. Dannel Malloy “closed a deficit as large as Wisconsin’s” with a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and union concessions:

It wasn’t easy, but the plan ultimately drew support from public-employee unions (after initial resistance) and the chief executives of the major insurance companies that anchor the state’s business community … [emphasis added]

Which is important … why? In both states the budget got balanced. Walker also achieved a structural reform–limiting public employee collective bargaining–that could help his state’s budgets stay balanced for many years to come. Malloy didn’t, and Connecticut may be back in the soup soon … but, hey, the unions were on board! Brownstein’s argument demonstrates the extent to which, for even smart pundits, “bipartisanship” and compromise have become ends in themselves. Any result that seems like a shared two-party sacrifice is by definition better than a result that seems to be a victory for one side, even if the latter is more substantial. …

That’s one problem with the current complaint about political “polarization”–and the dominant Obama narrative, in which he comes to town seeking to transcend partisan differences only to discover the “hyper-partisan” Republicans unwilling to play ball. The truth is we were never going to get universal health care without a huge nasty partisan fight–Republicans don’t want it. And we are are never going to alter the structure of collective bargaining without a huge nasty partisan fight–for unions it’s an existential battle. Yet both are worth doing. If they could be achieved by bipartisan compromise they would have been achieved a long time ago …

The anti-polarizers’ fallacy is that progress is always achieved in the center. Sometimes that’s true (e.g., the 1983 Social Security fix). But equally often progress comes when one side convinces voters and defeats the other side.  Sweeping Democratic victories in 1932 produced the New Deal. A lopsided Dem majority (plus reaction to the JFK assisination) gave us civil rights laws, Medicare, and the Great Society. None of those were compromises.  They made some people really angry!

Same for universal health care (a product of the fleeting Dem supermajority of 2009)–and the same, I’d argue for immigration in the future, even though it’s not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. There is virtually no realistic immigration deal that will satisfy both sides. The obvious compromise is 1) enforce the borders now, 2) have an amnesty once that’s done. But for many “reform” politicians the political payoff for reform is the amnesty. They don’t want to wait on it, or abandon the dream of future amnesties–which makes enforcement types more insistent that the amnesty go second. Progress will come, most likely, not when there’s a compromise but when one side wins.**

Over the decades, our government cycles through different partisan arrangements–GOPS win the White House but not the Congress (1988). The reverse happens (Dems win the White House, but lose the legislature–1994.) Dems win it all (1964). GOPs win it all (19802002).  The cycling may be healthy, if during the periods of split control we achieve the reforms compromise can achieve,*** while during the periods of one party control we achieve the reforms each party’s dominance can achieve. It’s not clear that we’re not in one of the latter periods today.

Polarization, in this model, isn’t the byproduct of a fight over “allocating loss.” Instead, polarization is useful, in an almost evolutionary sense, because it can help resolve unresolved issues like incomplete health care coverage, or illegal immigration.**** Both are pressing problems. They need to be solved. Until they’re solved, elections will continue to be about them, at least in part.  But they’re not going to get solved in the center. (Sorry, Fareed!) They’re much more likely to get solved–or at least resolved–when one side in a polarized contest wins, brutally defeating both its polarized opposition and the champions of mindless bipartisanship.


**–The same may hold for global warmingclimate change–any “compromise” will be so weak as to be ineffectual.

***–Welfare reform was partly a left-right compromise. The left agreed to require that welfare mothers work, the right agreed to spend lots of money. It had taken both Charles Murray and Bill Moyers to convince MSM writers that no-strings aid was subsidizing an underclass of single-parent households. But reform was also partly a partisan triumph. Work requirements were championed by Ronald Reagan when he was the polarizing governor of California. (The favorite bipartisan consensus proposal at the time was a “guaranteed income” with no work requirements.) The seeds of national change were planted only after the Republican landslide of 1980, when Reagan won authorization for state experimentation. That some Democrats, notably Bill Clinton, were subsequently converted to the reform cause didn’t make Dem opposition less fierce, though it wasn’t as publicly ferocious as, say, the occupation of the Wisconsin capitol building. Unlike the Wisconsin unions, liberal welfare supporters knew they had only a minority of voters on their side.

****– How, exactly, does polarization help? It clarifies and expands the choices–hyper-partisans, in this sense, are the enemies of “reification,” while the Brownsteins of the world are reification’s enforcers. Polarization also helps ensure that when one party does win, its proposals will be full-strength, not watered down.

Mickey Kaus