A sizable cohort of moderate to liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits, Clifford Case and Mark Hatfield provided the votes to pass progressive legislation. Similarly, during periods of conservative activism, Republicans could reach across the aisle to find conservative Democrats (like “boll weevils”) to help pass their priorities.
But those circumstances no longer exist, and as a result, bipartisanship has become the Sasquatch of American politics: rarely seen but fervently sought. The opportunities for finding cross-party support for significant legislation, except in response to a national calamity, like the Troubled Asset Relief Program for the financial crisis, have evaporated. The parties have fundamentally changed — there are now very few liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats — and that transformation has hollowed out the middle ground of American politics. Continuing to demand bipartisanship as the validator of sound policy is not only fanciful but also self-defeating.
What should the Biden administration prioritize?
- Edward L. Glaeser, an economist, writes that the president should use his infrastructure plan as an opportunity to “break the country out of its zoning straitjacket”
- The Editorial Board argues the administration should return to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
- Jonathan Alter writes that Biden needs to do now what F.D.R. achieved during the depression: “restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”
- Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”
The idea that more ideologically distinct parties have value is not new. After the 1940 elections, Franklin Roosevelt and the man he had just defeated, Wendell Willkie, discussed reformulating the parties along more ideological lines. The deaths of both men put an end to the project, but the idea was embraced by others in midcentury. In 1951 the Republican Party created a Committee to Explore Political Realignment; it explored whether the party should “merge with the Dixiecrats” to form a North-South conservative alliance that might dominate American politics.
Several years later, William Rusher, a publisher of the conservative National Review, called for “a new and more highly ideologized political party,” free of the moderate Republicans who collaborated with the dominant Democratic majority. Similarly, in 1962 the leftist Students for a Democratic Society’s manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, called for, as the political scientist Sam Rosenfeld put it, “breaking down the transactional elements” of parties and remaking them as “ideological institutions.”
In the past half-century, the parties have become far more ideologically unified and distinct. In a 2014 report, Pew Research found that a persuadable middle — moderate to liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats — in Congress shrank from 240 representatives and 29 senators in the 1970s to nine and three, respectively, 20 years later to none in 2014. Members of Congress voted with their party leadership 60 percent of the time just a few decades ago but now vote well over 90 percent along party lines, and even more so when voting on major policy issues.