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Vitriol, Partisanship, and the American Political System

Date posted: Thursday, August 23, 2012

Many people are calling this election the nastiest ever. All of them are wrong.

Photograph via the Washington Post

Photograph via the Washington Post

Lots of people in Washington are sad.

Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post claims this election is “the nastiest, most abrasive and personally accusatory presidential campaign in modern times.” Time’s Rick Stengel calls it “the most negative campaign in history.” Senator Joe Lieberman says that “the campaign has already set records for nastiness and negativity.” “A most poisonous campaign,” adds the Washington Post’s Dan Balz.

None of this is true. So why are so many people saying so? Let’s find out.

Of Course It Seems Nastier When Both Sides Do It

Or, as I like to call it: this is what happens when the Democratic Party stops bringing a knife to a gunfight. The Democratic Party stopped bringing a knife to a gunfight after John Kerry was first caricatured and then swiftboated in the 2004 Presidential election. So, in 2008, Obama ran on the mantra of post-partisanship hope and change, helping to obscure the fact that he also ran on a ton of negative ads.

As former Obama and Hillary Clinton aide Blake Zeff put it, “Not only is this not the most negative campaign ever—it’s not the most negative campaign of your lifetime, unless you happen to be three years old.”

Which is not necessarily to say it’s a good thing. Just because this isn’t the nastiest campaign ever doesn’t mean it’s not nasty.

What Can We Do About It?

Construction’s Ian Cheney tackled the topic on Monday in a must-read piece. He proposed a creative and interesting solution to the vitriol: mandatory voting. This is a good idea, though some comments looked at its unfeasibility from a legal standpoint. From my point of view, I’m not sure it would even solve this particular problem. As I’ve noted before, “many voters are so far removed from understanding the mechanisms of government that it becomes difficult to accurately punish and reward politicians for their actions and the results that come under their watch.” It seems unlikely that pushing the least-informed voters to the polls will decrease the amount of smears, lies, and misinformation that occur during an election campaign.

The Problem Is Not Really Vitriol Per Se

Three things. First, even if vitriol were the problem, it would be difficult to figure out how to get rid of it, because as culture becomes more open and inclusive—generally a good thing—it also (with some exceptions) widens the boundaries for what passes as acceptable and appropriate discourse.

Second, recall that cultural clashes are normal when it comes to social issues: abortion, civil rights, gay marriage, etc. To put it another way, they are unfortunately necessary.

Third, this is what the British government looks like.

The Problem is Our System of Government

No, not democracy. Democracy is fine, so far as it goes. The problem, specifically, is the Senate filibuster.

In his column, Ian correctly identified the perverse incentives that exist in the Senate for the minority party to impede the legislative efforts of the majority party: “It’s a zero-sum game; in an acrimonious two-party system, what’s bad for the other party is good for your own.”

The New York Times’s Gail Collins has agreed, noting that while she likes partisanship,

What I don’t like, and what nobody likes, is the brain-dead variety we see in Congress where the minority party would rather make a bill worse in the hopes that it would fail than make it better in case it passes.

It’s the two-party system that sets up the zero-sum game, but it’s the filibuster that allows the minority party to execute the game to the benefit of the party and the detriment of the country.

If the Problem is The System, The Solution is Fixing the System

Namely, getting rid of the Senate filibuster.

Ian cites a myriad of problems facing us, among them unemployment, climate change, and a struggling infrastructure. Many of these problems would have already been at least partially dealt with, or dealt with more effectively, had the filibuster not been in place. The threat of a filibuster led to Obama’s stimulus plan getting watered down by Senate moderates (see Slate’s Matt Yglesias’s evisceration of retiring centrist Olympia Snowe.) The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, known more commonly as Cap and Trade, passed the House, but died in the Senate. Ryan Lizza’s lengthy New Yorker account details the struggles of the bill’s sponsors to find 60 votes to break a filibuster; had the bill required only 50, it would have become law in 2010. Republicans repeatedly filibustered Democratic efforts to extend unemployment benefits. The DREAM act passed the House easily and was filibustered in the Senate. And were it not for the brief period of time when Obama had 60 votes in the senate, millions of uninsured Americans would also be on our list of gigantic problems.

The filibuster is now being abused—its use has skyrocketed in recent Congresses—and we should eliminate it.

The Irony

The Senate’s emphasis on its own magical and exalted tradition, the respect and decorum within those walls, has thus far made the body reluctant to change its rules, yet eliminating the filibuster would have a hugely positive effect on lessening vitriol and partisanship.

In his article lamenting the current political discourse, in the Washington Post, Balz noted that “it will take time and great effort for the winner to drain the poison from the system.” But he was slightly off. The poison is the system.

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Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. He tweets @benrhoffman.

View all posts by Ben Hoffman →


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