Let it be said that for one lovely moment, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi responded exactly as those in authority should to a shocking assault on human lives and our political system. After last Wednesday’s shooting on a baseball field, both spoke in a spirit of thoughtful solidarity and genuinely mutual concern. Kudos to them.
Unfortunately, so much else that has been said over the past few days is — I will use a family-oriented term — balderdash. We are not, alas, about to enter some new age of civility because of this terrible episode. And our divisions are not just a matter of our failing to speak nicely of and to each other, even though politeness is an underrated virtue these days.
The harsh feelings in our politics arise from a long process — the steady destruction of the norms of partisan competition that began more than a quarter-century ago. Well before President Trump took political invective to a new level, Newt Gingrich was pushing his side to extreme forms of aggressiveness. Journalist John M. Barry cited an emblematic 1978 speech Gingrich gave to a group of College Republicans in which he warned them off “Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire, but are lousy in politics.”
“You’re fighting a war,” the future House speaker said. “It is a war for power. . . . Don’t try to educate them. That is not your job. . . . What’s the primary purpose of a political leader? . . . To build a majority.”
Gingrich won his majority in 1994, but the cost was high. This is not to say that Democrats were pacifists. But I’d argue that the critical shift happened on the Republican side. The turning point came when President George H.W. Bush was punished by members of his own party, including Gingrich, for agreeing with Democrats on the need for a tax increase in 1990. It was a watershed for the GOP. Republicans would never again repeat what they saw as the elder Bush’s “mistake.”
Political scientists Steven Webster and Alan Abramowitz, pioneers in identifying “negative partisanship” (i.e., preferences driven primarily by intense dislike of the other side), have shown that our deepening differences are driven by disagreements on policy. It goes beyond mere name-calling.
Look at the issue of gun violence. When even mild measures such as background checks are cast as draconian impositions on the right to bear arms, we simply cannot have a rational back-and-forth on practical steps to make events such as last Wednesday’s a little less likely.
Or take health care. Say what you will about Obamacare, but it really did try to draw on conservative and Republican ideas (health insurance exchanges, subsidies for private insurance, tax credits and the like). As Ezra Klein wrote recently on Vox, the lesson of the repeal effort (now being carried out in secrecy in the Senate) is that “including private insurers and conservative ideas in a health reform plan doesn’t offer a scintilla of political protection, much less Republican support.” Civility is a lot harder to maintain when you try to give the other side its due and get nothing in return. And it only aggravates already existing policy differences when one side regularly moves the goal posts.
Yes, I am offering a view of our problem from a progressive perspective. For what it’s worth, I have over the years written with great respect for the conservative tradition and conservative thinkers from Robert Nisbet to Yuval Levin. Conservatism has never been for me some demonic ideology, and I am happy to take issue with those who say otherwise.
But I would ask my friends on the right to consider that ever since Bush 41 agreed to that tax increase, conservatives and Republicans in large numbers have shied away from any deal-making with liberals. They have chosen instead to paint us as advocates of dangerous forms of statism. This has nothing to do with what we actually believe in or propose. Every gun measure is decried as confiscation. Every tax increase is described as oppressive. This simply shuts down dialogue before it can even start.
John F. Kennedy once spoke of how “a beachhead of cooperation” might “push back the jungle of suspicion.” So let us begin with that Ryan-Pelosi moment. We can at least agree that political violence is unacceptable and that each side should avoid blaming the other for the deranged people in their ranks who act otherwise. Things have gotten so intractable that even this would be progress.