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The Unbearable Lightness of Alan Wolfe By: Philip A. Klinkner
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 21, 2004


Alan Wolfe is the Chance the Gardener of the contemporary academic/pundit class. Though moving from left to center over the last few decades, Wolfe has remained consistent in the superficiality of his analysis. (Here's my take on his book, One Nation After All.)

A recent op-ed by Wolfe in the LA Times
is typical. Here it is with my comments in italics:

American politics are more partisan than ever. The American people distrust partisanship more than ever. The conflict between these two forces is as important to the election of 2004 as the contest between Republicans and Democrats.

One of the clearest measures of partisanship is the dollars that candidates can raise. By that measure, the big surprise of the current election is that Democrats can be as partisan as Republicans, since John Kerry has surprised those who thought that he would run out of cash long before the Democratic convention. Instead, his party, much like its opponent, is getting its wealthy supporters to put their money where their mouths are.

Why is fundraising a measure of partisanship? Howard Dean raised lots of money by attacking the Democratic party establishment. Also, plenty of less "partisan" candidates have done fine with fundraising. What about Bill Clinton? He never lacked for money, but he consciously triangulated between the parties. Also, is Kerry getting his money from wealthy supporters or is the increase coming from small donors?

Party unity is a second indication of partisanship, and here as well the two parties are geared for battle. Republicans have a reputation for discipline, but no Republican has been as single-minded about making his colleagues toe the line as George W. Bush; he even has John McCain appearing in his ads.

I hardly think John McCain has been coerced into supporting Bush's reelection bid. I don't have a very high opinion of Karl Rove, but I'd guess that when it comes to making McCain talk, he can't succeed where the North Vietnamese failed. The real and obvious reason for McCain's support of Bush is that like the President, he is a staunch and consistent advocate of the war on terror and the Iraq invasion. If you look at the ads, you can see that McCain's praise of Bush is specifically about his wartime leadership. Plus, if McCain has been forced to "toe the line," why did he vote against the FMA in the Senate last week?

Yet it is the Democrats who are more unified than ever. Liberal activists by the score are disdaining independent candidate Ralph Nader.

Nader is polling around 2-5% of the vote. That's better than he did in the 2000 election and about where he polled in July of that year.

The left and right factions within the party are suppressing their differences over gay rights or Iraq to present a common front. Unlike in the days of comedian Will Rogers, a person can now say, "I belong to an organized party; I'm a Democrat."

Since when did the Democrats not try to present a common front on controversial issues? They haven't exactly been tripping over themselves in recent years to advance a pro-gay rights agenda.

In addition, the parties have stopped treating each other by Marquis of Queensbury rules. The majority in many state legislatures draws district lines to ensure seats for itself.

Again, is this something new?

Time-honored traditions in Congress — such as bipartisan membership on conference committees — have been set aside. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican leader Tom DeLay do not just dislike each other; each thinks the other a danger to the Republic.

And of course partisanship can be found in the fact that Republicans and Democrats hold different positions on many issues of the day. If you want a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, you're a Republican partisan; if you want to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning Roe vs. Wade, you're with the other guys. True, Kerry has been careful not to distance himself too much from Bush on Iraq. But this is not Tweedledum and Tweedledee's election.

Hold the presses! Democrats and Republicans "hold different positions on many issues of the day"! Thanks for that brilliant insight, Professor Wolfe. Isn't one of the things that separates Democrats from Republicans the fact that they disagree on certain issues? Also, support or opposition to an amendment barring gay marriage is hardly an exact predictor of partisanship. According to a Washington Post poll in March, 54% of Republican supported such an amendment compared to 36% of Democrats and 40% of independents. That's not a huge partisan difference.

Yet while the partisans are in full fury, a lot of other Americans do not like politics, and they like partisan politics even less. This is especially true when it comes to the famed wedge issues. The Republicans and the Democrats may disagree zealously over whether the Constitution should be amended to ban gay marriage, but most Americans simply do not think the issue is that important. Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq have changed the people's mood far more than Washington's. Wedge issues now seem tawdry and divisive, one reason why none of them, including affirmative action and abortion, are all that prominent.

This must be news to Republicans, who pushed the gay marriage amendment in the Senate and who are doing everything they can to round up the votes of evangelical Christians. Also, where's the evidence that "Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq have changed the people's mood far more than Washington's"? In the latest Washington Post poll of the most important issues, 19% of respondents said the war on Iraq and another 19% said the war on terror. But 29% said jobs and the economy, 12% said education, and 12% said health care. So while Iraq and terrorism are clearly important issues, a majority of Americans don't think they are the most important issues. Also, there is no evidence that Washington insiders places more on less emphasis on these issues than do ordinary Americans.

Nor do Americans appreciate the negative campaigning that partisanship fuels.

Is there any evidence that partisanship fuels negative campaigns? During the 1970s and 1980s, analysts pointed to a decline in partisanship as the driving force behind negative campaigns.

Incumbents, who have a record to run on, usually run on it; it is a sign of our partisan times that the sitting president is attacking his opponent as if the opponent were the one in the White House. Time will tell whether Bush's attempts to define Kerry negatively — or Kerry's efforts to respond — will work. But polls and voting patterns in the past show that Americans want their candidates upbeat and positive, not mean-spirited and divisive.

Again, is there any evidence for this? Since when did incumbents, especially those in tight races, not try to paint a negative picture of their challengers? What polls and voting patterns "show that Americans want their candidates upbeat and positive, not mean-spirited and divisive"? Sure, winning candidates tend to be upbeat and positive, but which way do the causal arrows run? I'd argue that it's easy to be upbeat and positive when you are coasting to an easy victory. Wolfe seems to be confusing a close race with a highly partisan race.

Then there is all that money. As they proved when they put sufficient pressure on Congress to pass the McCain-Feingold law, Americans find it unseemly when those with access to money can simply buy access to government. Given that both candidates opted out of public financing in the primaries, and that Kerry is considering spurning the $75 million in public money available for the general election, pressure could build again for new rules, ones that would not only limit spending but also cut down on those annoying TV ads the money buys.

From the standpoint of the contest between the parties, the key question is which one will get more votes.

Really?

In the struggle between partisanship and nonpartisanship, by contrast, the key question is how many will vote. Americans already go to the polls in far lower percentages than they did a century ago, particularly younger Americans. It may well be that the intense partisanship we are witnessing will energize each party's base and that it will turn around this decline. Or partisanship could sour the independents and centrists and keep them from voting at all, lowering once again the percentage of those who show up. Partisan myself, I hope for the former outcome. But I would not surprised if the latter one happened instead.

It's pretty clear that if anything, declining partisanship pushes down turnout. Beyond that, Wolfe is saying, "I have no idea what has happened or why. Nor do I have any idea about what will happen or why. But I won't let that stop me from writing an op-ed."

Visit Phil Klinkner's blog at http://polysigh.blogspot.com/


Philip A. Klinkner is Associate Professor of Government and Director of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. He is co-author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America (University of Chicago Press, 1999).


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