Political scientist Lee Drutman argues in a Vox essay that American politics is descending into what he calls “doom-loop partisanship.” Drutman notes that Americans have been “retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises,” each heavily racialized, in which “[t]here’s no possibility for rational debate or middle-ground compromise. Just two sorted teams, with no overlap, no cross-cutting identities, and with everyone’s personal sense of status constantly on the line.”
Drutman attributes this to winner-take-all elections, the expanding power of the presidency, and the growing influence of money in politics. I think, despite all the very real design flaws in American politics, the problems he describe stem mainly from the pathologies of the Republican Party.
It is certainly true that the psychological relationship between the parties has a certain symmetry. Both fear each other will cheat to win and use their power to stack the voting deck. “If Republicans win in close elections, Democrats say it’s only because they cheated by making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote; if Democrats win in close elections, Republicans say it’s only because they voted illegally.” But while it is not true that Democrats have allowed illegal voting in nontrivial levels, it is extremely true that Republicans have deliberately made voting inconvenient for Democratic-leaning constituencies. The psychology is parallel, but the underlying facts are not.
Likewise, there is a superficial similarity to the terror with which partisans now greet governments controlled by the opposing party. Obama’s presidency made Republicans terrified of rampant socialism and vengeful minority rule. (Rush Limbaugh in 2009 instructed his audience, “In Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’ Of course everybody said the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white.”) Trump’s presidency has inspired a similar terror among liberals terrified that Trump would take their insurance and deport immigrants.
Liberal fears have had a much closer relationship to reality. The reason is that the Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike. Whatever terrors of rampant Jacobinism may have gripped the economic elite, there are limits to the fiscal and regulatory pain Democrats can impose on a constituency that has a seat at the table (many seats, actually).
There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites. Advocates for labor or the poor have no voice whatsoever in the Republican elite. It took a massive national mobilization to narrowly dissuade the party from snatching health insurance away from millions of people too poor or sick to afford it.
Then of course there are the competing tribal epistemologies. There is nothing on the left with the reach and scope of the conservative media universe defined by talk radio, Fox News, and other outlets that have functioned as state media. Certainly pockets of epistemological closure exist, especially in the way social media has allowed curated media streams that exclusively cater to one’s prejudices. But the fact is that the Democratic Party is fundamentally accountable to the mainstream news media. And that media play try to follow rules of objectivity that the right-wing alternative media does not bother with.
The most striking revelation in Devil’s Bargain, Josh Green’s account of the rise of Steve Bannon, is that Bannon understood both the importance and the permeability of the mainstream news media to his ideas and messaging. Bannon knew that the right kind of research could influence the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton, and thereby deeply shape the views of Democratic voters.
Whether or not the Times was correct to use this research, and whether or not it treated Clinton fairly overall, is not the point. What matters is that Democratic politicians need to please a news media that is open to contrary facts and willing — and arguably eager — to hold them accountable. The mainstream media have have its liberal biases, but it also misses the other way — see the Times’ disastrously wrong report, a week before the election, that the FBI saw no links between the Trump campaign and Russia and no intention by Russia to help Trump. One cannot imagine Fox News publishing an equivalently wrong story against the Republican Party’s interests — its errors all run in the same direction.
Whatever interest liberals may have in finding congenial media, they don’t dismiss the mainstream media out of hand in the way conservatives have been trained over decades to do. When the conservative news media criticizes Republicans, it is almost always to play the role of ideological enforcer, attacking them for their lack of fervor. One party has a media ecosystem that serves as a guardrail, and the other has one that serves only as an accelerant.
The left has no equivalent to a Rush Limbaugh in influence and sheer lunacy. The conservative commentator — whose prestige on the right is such that, when Republicans won control of the House in 1994, they made him an honorary member — recently described Hurricane Irma as a story trumped up by the liberal media in order to foment climate-change hysteria and sell bottled water. There are figures just as crazy as Limbaugh on the left, but they are almost uniformly outside the Democratic Party coalition.
This asymmetry is not endemic to the ideological right and left. There are political systems in the world where major left-of-center parties have more extremist tendencies than right-of-center ones. Before the conservatives finished their long march through the institutions, the Republican Party of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was far more moderate than the current version. It is entirely possible that the far left in the United States will eventually take over the Democratic Party, or that the right wing will lose its grip over the GOP. I write frequently about extremism and bad-faith argument on the left, but those tendencies remain, for now, largely walled off from national power.
In the meantime, whatever the very real flaws in the American political and electoral system, it is simply impossible to design any kind of a system that can withstand a stress test like a major party captured by a faction as radical as the conservative movement. Its absence of limiting principles to its ideology, indifference to empirical evidence, and inability to concede failings of its dogma lead to an endless succession of failures explained away to the base as faintheartedness.
The doom loop Drutman describes is, in reality, both sides responding to the phenomenon of Republican extremism. Republicans are sealed off in a bubble of paranoia and rage, and Democrats are sealed off from that bubble. Democrats fear Republican government because it is dangerous and extreme. Republicans fear Democratic government because they are dangerous and extreme.