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Michael Barone
Michael Barone
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Partisan Divide: Eggheads Get What They Wished For


"Answered prayers," Saint Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said, "cause more tears than those that go unanswered." Especially, I fear, the answered prayers of political scientists.

These days, you hear academics and pundits bemoaning hyperpartisanship of our politics. It has never been worse, some say.

This shows a certain ignorance about history. Go back and read the things that John Adams' and Thomas Jefferson's partisans were saying about each other in 1800.

Or reflect on the fact that Aaron Burr, Jefferson's first vice president, and Andrew Jackson, the first president to call himself a Democrat, both killed men in duels.

And when you go back in history, searching for that golden moment when politicians of both parties spoke warmly of each other, you only find some glimmers here and there.

Some eminent political scientists today argue that we would have less virulent partisanship if we entrusted the drawing of congressional and legislative districts to nonpartisan commissions.

Maybe that would have some marginal effect. But in California and Arizona, which recently set up such panels, Democrats have cleverly gamed the system to get favorable district lines. Republicans will presumably try to do the same next time. In any case, there will still be many one-party districts.

I ascribe much of the partisan tone of today's politics to two changes urged by the political scientists I studied in college nearly half a century ago.

One was the idea that we should have one clearly liberal and one clearly conservative party. This was a popular enough argument in the 1940s and 1950s that Gallup used to test it in polls.

Political scientists and sympathetic journalists were annoyed that there were lots of Southern (and some non-Southern) conservatives in the Democratic Party and that there were a fair number of pretty liberal Republicans in big states like New York and California.

Wouldn't it make more sense, they asked, to have all the liberals in one party and all the conservatives in the other? That way, they said, voters would have a clear choice, and the winning party (the liberals, most of them hoped) would be able to enact its programs into law.

There are indeed rational arguments for this. For years, Southern whites clung to the Democratic label because of memories of the Civil War, while many liberal Northerners supported Republicans because they disliked big city Democratic political machines.

Neither party was ideologically coherent.

Today, it's clear that the prayers of the midcentury reformers have been answered. The Republican Party is a clearly and nearly unanimously a conservative party, while the Democratic Party is the natural home for liberals.

As a result, there are more party-line votes in Congress than there were half a century ago. There are fewer friendships and alliances across party lines. Parties with supermajorities can enact their programs (e.g., Obamacare) even in the face of hostile public opinion.

Another idea peddled by political scientists and some thoughtful liberal politicians half a century ago was that there should be more party discipline in Congress.

Rep. Richard Bolling, frustrated that Democratic House speakers didn't force Southern conservatives to vote the liberal line, wrote two books in the 1960s advocating this. Liberal political scientists and columnists liked the idea.

So when Democrats won big majorities in the Watergate year of 1974, San Francisco Rep. Phillip Burton in a typical backroom maneuver, engineered the election of Democratic committee chairmen and important subcommittee chairmen by secret ballot.

House Republicans adopted a similar rule, providing for election by an elected steering committee, after their big win in 1994.

There's a certain logic to this, and I believe the results on balance have been positive. You don't see senile chairmen frozen in office by the seniority system (a progressive reform in 1911) anymore, and both parties have generally chosen competent chairmen.

But — and here's the answered prayers department — you also get more partisan politics. Anyone wanting a chairmanship someday had better not dissent from party orthodoxy very often.

A reputation for bipartisanship doesn't help you get ahead when members of the other party don't get a vote.

The fact is that in a free electoral system, politics will always be adversarial. And in a two-party system, it will often be bitterly partisan in tone.

You can pray that things will be different. But you may not like how your prayers are answered.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




3 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;... It does not matter what politicians past said in their partisan battles... When the Constitution brought the American Revolution to an end, with the rich on top, and with every advantage, the people were still given the means to decide on important issues... When the parties grown huge and powerful fixed the number of representatives they made possible the partisanship we see today by denying to the people the democracy they were promised by the constitution...
Does it really make any difference whether one man represents 30k, or 260k??? It is because house districts can be gerrymandered, and so divided that they send a single party repeatedly to congress while denying a significant minority their voice in government that we find ourselves so demonized and polarized...Consider that only the elected official is made free within the confines of party politics, that he does not have to do what even the majority electing wants, that he can act on personal principals, and offer even those who elected him no choice...
He can do as money demands and call it principal, but the principal is that government offers a good job and many perks...For this reason change is so long denied that the whole population is turned against each other, and made radical... There is no threat in any of these safe districts but some one even more radical, who is willing to rattle the chain and push the buttons of the frustrated majority...Whether the right or the left know it; they are more alike than different... For the moment they blame each other for the intransigence in government because that is what the politicians tell them; but when they understand that it is money that is asking for no change and no progress, they can get together and roll the rock of time forward for good and all...
We are divided at our peril... As the Romans said: Divide et Empera, and we are divided so we can be ruled out of the desparate fear among the rich of self government and democracy... The parties say: only we stand between you and chaos, and tyranny... In fact, the parties stand between us and democracy, and we must learn to trust each other and rid ourselves of parties if we will be free... With every birth our repesentation grows less... So what???
We no longer need representative government... We can have direct democracy... But until that day, if we sent an army to washington in the form of many representatives representing small districts too small to gerrymander, and each with new ideas, and a new mind for them, we would not long suffer from impasse before we would join our representatives in revolution... Two few representatives empowered the parties, and empowered the representatives, but it robbed power from the people and from the institution of the house which is the only department of government given to the people...
Let us take back the house if we will end this impossible hatred and division... No man can serve two masters... Let us make certain our representatives are not using our division to cover their service to money... We should be the masters of these men, and they should be our servants... Let us make it so...
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Aug 2, 2012 5:27 AM
James A. Sweeney, politics is always designed so that those with money can rule the masses. Whether there is theoretical rule by the majority or rule by two parties the status quo will be broadly the same. It is only when corrupt money management leads to crises or the threat of bankrupcy that any real workable solutions or changes to laws come from the ruling money elite. The internet, advances in technology, and worldwide businesses and banks are going to determine the shape of politics in the future. My book HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD will give you a more realistic view of the changes which are coming no matter how you may want to tweek the political system for the better. Available on Kindle and Nook Book.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Uldis Sprogis
Thu Aug 2, 2012 7:59 AM
Re: Uldis Sprogis;... Sir, money rules the masses as a by product of the necessity of everyone to support themselves...Let's jump in the way back machine and I will offer you an example... Many years ago in the battle of Poitier against the Saracens, the Muslim Cavelry broke against the shield wall of Frankish footmen; but Charles Martel was not able to follow up his victory on foot... None the less, the develpment of the stirrup which before the world had only seen in rudimentary form made a horseman the equal of many foot men, and it was out of the desire to make a class of mounted warriors independent of the need to support themselves with labor that European Feudalism was born...Here for the first time in Medieval history government becomes the privilage of wealth...
Now, free men and footmen were essential to military actions in all times, but here began with insignificant difference between free men what Nietzsche talks of later as overman and underman...Was it ever necessary for Fuedalism to become an hereditary institution for dividing rich from poor, and lords from commoners, and did it serve them well???
The whole system was better at defending itself from itself than from others... It was no match for the wild Norsemen... Were it not for the fact that the Muslims soon grew lazy on wine, women and guitars, and spent their money buying Eunics produced on order by the Franks among other things, they might have offered a threat equal to the Norse...The fact is that Charles Martel had confiscated a vast amount of church property, and in his hands it had to pay for its defense, -and support the people who supported his lords...
The people are always stuck by the necessity of living... The primitive Germans could afford democracy because they could not afford to be without it...That man who must support his own and his lord has little time for anything else, so freedom and self government slip from his grip...
The question we should all ask now is: If the Germans of the eight century could support themselves and perhaps a hundreth more in idleness and war working from dawn to dusk; why are we still working eight hours five days a week or more???
We cannot afford time to watch the news, and what we see gets no better without our watching... We work harder all the time for less for exactly the reason the Franks and their subject peoples did; because we have no choice, and politics is the expression of choice that we have only to the slightest degree...Every excuse including expediency has been used to cut us out of democracy, and the more we are cut out of democracy the more we must work, and the less we have to show for it...The stated purpose of our government is virtue and justice, Good, in the words of Aristotle; but it finds the task it has had set for it impossible...
Now; government, as opposed to forms of rule are made out of morality and the necessity to defend self and rights... The moral man is self governed, and moral people govern themselves; and there is no doubt that self rule is a sort of luxury since it takes so much from life, and yet it is a necessity since without it our lives are taken completely, by the hour, day, and minute; consumed by labor, and wished away...
The majority finds it necessary to defend itself against the minority, and other enemies; and so creat government... The inevitable course of events that history reveals is that free people following some chief make conquests, and out of their ease their chief becomes a king, and their king in time makes them slaves and becomes their enemy when they demand justice... He will sooner hire mercenaries than his own that he does not trust, but then the mercenaries make themselves masters of the whole people, and that is that...
Our rich have made themselves our masters out of a slight difference, essentially out of the privilage of property, but now they will see us too poor to support our government, and will see our government depend upon them for loans...Though justice is our right, our right cannot interfere with the privilage of property so the situation, which is natural, and not one of design, can only make us slaves, or in the process force freedom upon us as the price of our survival... The rich cannot defend what they own, but expect us to... We have no international defense that is not compromised for property and capital... Like all societies in dying, we find ourselves divided and alienated from ourselves... But it just happens... Changing forms is the history of human kind... Only idiots think it has never been done before, or that they can get away with it...
Thanks... Sweeney
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Aug 2, 2012 2:50 PM
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