The jungle of political suspicion

Source:   —  June 19, 2017, at 7:01 AM

After Wednesday’s shooting on a baseball field, both spoke in a spirit of thoughtful solidarity and genuinely mutual concern. Honor to them.

The jungle of political suspicion

WA Let it be said that for one lovely moment, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic boss Nancy Pelosi responded precisely as those in authority should to a shocking assault on human lives and our political system. After Wednesday’s shooting on a baseball field, both spoke in a spirit of thoughtful solidarity and genuinely mutual concern. Honor to them.

Unfortunately, so much else that's been said over the latest few days is – I'll utilize a family-oriented term – balderdash. We're not, alas, about to enter some new age of civility because of this terrible episode. And our divisions aren't just a matter of our failing to speak nicely of and to each other, even though politeness is an underrated virtue these days.

The harsh feelings in our politics occur from a long process – the steady destruction of the norms of partisan contest that began more than a quarter-century ago. Well before President Trump took political invective to a new level, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was pushing his side to extreme forms of aggressiveness. Journalist John Barry cited an emblematic one thousand nine hundred seventy-eight speech Gingrich gave to a grouping of college Republicans in which he warned them off “Boy Scout words which would be grand around the campfire but are lousy in politics.”

“You’re fighting a war,” Gingrich said. “It is a war for power. … Don’t attempt to educate. That's not your job. What's the primary purpose of a political leader? To construct a majority.”

Gingrich won his majority in one thousand nine hundred ninety-fourth, but the cost was high. This isn't to declare that Democrats were pacifists. But I’d argue that the critical shift happened on the Republican side. The turning point came when President George H. W. Bush was punished by members of his own party, including Gingrich, for agreeing with Democrats on the necessity for a tax expand in one thousand nine hundred-ninetieth. It was a watershed for the GOP. Republicans would never again repeat what they saw as the elder Bush’s “mistake.”

Political scientists Steven Webster and Alan Abramowitz, pioneers in identifying “negative partisanship” (i. e., preferences driven primarily by intense displeasure of the other side), have shown that our deepening differences are driven by disagreements on policy. It goes beyond mere name calling.

See at the issue of gun violence. When even mild measures such as background checks are cast as draconian impositions on the right to bear arms, we simply cannot have a rational back-and-forth on practical steps to create events such as Wednesday’s a tiny less likely.

Or get health care. Declare what you'll about Obamacare, but it really did attempt to draw on conservative and Republican ideas (health insurance exchanges, subsidies for private insurance, tax credits and the like). As Ezra Klein wrote recently on Vox, the lesson of the repeal effort (presently being carried out in secrecy in the Senate) is that “including private insurers and conservative ideas in a health reform map doesn’t proposal a scintilla of political protection, much less Republican support.” Civility is a lot harder to support when you attempt to give the other side its due and obtain nothing in return. And it only aggravates already existing policy differences when one side regularly moves the goal posts.

Yes, I'm offering a view of our problem from a progressive perspective. For what it’s worth, I've over the years written with grand respect for the conservative tradition and conservative thinkers from Robert Nisbet to Yuval Levin. Conservatism has never been for me some demonic ideology, and I'm pleased to get issue with those who say otherwise.

But I'd ask my friends on the right to consider that ever since Bush forty-one agreed to that tax increase, conservatives and Republicans in large numbers have shied far from any deal-making with liberals. They've chosen instead to paint us as advocates of risky forms of statism. This has nothing to do with what we actually believe in or propose. Every gun measure is decried as confiscation. Every tax expand is described as oppressive. This simply shuts down dialogue before it can even start.

John F. Kennedy once spoke of how “a beachhead of cooperation” might “push back the jungle of suspicion.” So let us start with that Ryan-Pelosi moment. We can at minimum consent that political violence is unacceptable and that each side should avert blaming the other for the deranged people in their ranks who act otherwise. Things have gotten so intractable that even this would be progress.

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