Partisanship Changes, but it doesn’t go away

By , 18 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I’ve been blogging that I think post-partisanship is a sham. To the extent that the stimulus process was meant to be the test of Obama’s “post-partisan” vision, I’m relieved to report that it didn’t quite work out his way. Partisanship does not, cannot and should not go away. But the nature of the debate reminds us that partisanship is not static, because the parties themselves shift and redefine over time. And THAT kind of change has surely arrived.

Start with the stimulus: what’s the divide between the three Republicans who voted for the bill and all the rest who didn’t? The simple answer is that the three—Collins, Snowe and Specter—are “moderates,” that they fall in the center of the current partisan spectrum. But the Republican party has fiscal, social and defense types, and you can be moderate on one axis and conservative on the other. The divide in this case was on fiscal issues, between fiscal conservatives who think government is more problem than solution and should be shrunk by spending cuts, and fiscal moderates who think government is one kind of solution and should be strengthened by (responsibly financed) expansion.

At its highest minded, this disagreement is a conflict between those who believe in the power of the individual and the decentralized and those who believe in the power of the central institution or community. But being anti-institution is not at all part of the current, about-to-be-old conservatism. On the social axis, for example, it’s the far right that believes in the institution (the nuclear heterosexual family, the Church) and the libertarian-right that leaves such things to individual choice. Meanwhile, it’s the far right (the neocons) that advocates for U.S. military interests and the moderate realists who say no often on grounds of national sovereignty and opposition to global governance. That the institution vs. individual fault line has suddenly become the chief fault line on the right is a new development.

Something similar is happening on the left. Here the best lens is foreign policy. The right did a very good job of maintaining that there was a far-right neoconservative interventionist position and a “moderate” realist let-well-enough-alone position but that both could sit in the same big tent. The left never did that; instead, there was a liberal humanitarian position that all force is always bad and there was everyone else who was, by not agreeing, disowned as a sell out to the right. There are now a handful of left-of-center thinkers who are trying to reclaim the space for liberal arguments in favor of strategic force and calculated national interest, most notably folks like Robert Wright at the New America Foundation. He aptly dubs his worldview progressive realism and he’s got a new website for it here.

Now this divide between progressive realism and humanitarian pacifism we might also frame as a question of institution vs. individual. And again, it doesn’t map perfectly onto all issues. The “far left” position on economics is all about big institutional spending; the moderate position is for balanced budgets. The far left position on social issues is all about freedom of individual choice; the moderate position is about limiting rights in the name of law and order.

Until now, the institution/individual fault line has cut unevenly through both sides of the political spectrum, which meant that people whose position on this fault line was quite consistent actually found themselves labeled as inconsistent and thus as moderates.

Example 1: David Brooks is pro-government-spending, pro-limited-interventionism and pro-family-values (though he notably and brilliantly counts favoring gay marriage as a family values position.) He’s pro-institution through and through, but that makes him a ‘centrist’ under the old system.

Example 2: The libertarian Cato Institute, which has historically allied itself with many right wing pols on economic issues but can be very left on social issues, specifically because it favors the decentralized/individualist position on both counts. Malou Innocent, whom I’ll be writing about soon for Forbes, fits that into the foreign policy realm by arguing against some of America’s dumber military interventions. Brink Lindsey is the Institute’s chief champion on domestic issues and likes to think of himself as a member of the liberal-tarian left. Are Cato thinkers squishy centrist, or principled individualist?

And how can people with such different views from one another be sharing the space called the center? That problem, I believe, is about to get solved. The new partisan structure makes this individual vs. institution fault line the principal one. It pits individualists (free marketeers and free software types, free love types and peaceniks, CEOs and college students) against institutionalists (tax-and-spend Keynesians, defense hawks and community organizer types from churches to school boards). It pits Brooks against Innocent and Lindsey, in other words.

Brooks, who normally nails these things head on only got part of this shift. He’s noted how awkward his centrism is under the old rubric, and he’s often advocating for the right to take up institutionalism by combining Sam’s Club Republicanism with the social rhetoric. But he too often falls back on class to explain the new lines: that the individualist position is an upper-middle-class one, the institutionalist position is a more populist one. In its present incarnation, that may be true, but to frame the debate that way seems to obscure the key question of individual vs. institution, Locke vs. Hobbes. First off, there have been many times in history where the institutionalist position has been that of the economic elite, and just as many where the shift towards anarchism has risen from the bottom. Moreover, to frame the debate as Brooks frames it doesn’t leave room for Brooks himself, an upper-middle-class institutionalist. No wonder he feels like he’s becoming obsolete.

I feel a bit at sea in this new model too, for different reasons. If the new fault line is individual vs. institution, and I fall largely on the institution side (in favor of a national health care mandate, nationalizing some of the financials, hawkish on Afghanistan, and sensitive to the Brooks-ian over the libertarian argument about gay rights), does that make me a member of the new left or the new right?

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