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Jewish World Review April 9, 2002 /28 Nisan, 5762

Bill Schneider

William
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Consumer Reports

Politics Remain Stalemated

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Politically speaking, it's still Nov. 7, 2000. The two parties remain deadlocked. The red state/blue state division of America persists, with the red (Bush) states like Texas getting redder and the blue (Gore) states like California getting bluer.

That's because the division enshrined in the 2000 election map wasn't a division over policy. It was a division over values: liberal America and conservative America. Nothing has happened in the last year and a half to heal that division. No, not even Sept. 11, which was widely expected to break the stalemate in U.S. politics.

Yes, there is widespread agreement on the war. And broad support for President Bush. But those things are above politics. Even Bush is above politics. The evidence? Most Democrats support the president. It's the right thing to do at a time of national crisis. But beneath the exalted level of the presidency and the war, deadlock and confrontation persist.

You can see it in the legislative process--the failure of Congress to pass a meaningful economic-stimulus package or an energy bill or prescription-drug coverage for retirees or a patients' bill of rights. You can see it in electoral politics--Bush's negligible influence in the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races last year and in the California Republican primary this year.

The war on terrorism has not transformed U.S. politics. In fact, there are indications the opposite may happen. The war may become more political as it goes on.

The roots of America's political deadlock go back to the great civil rights war of the 1960s, a cultural civil war in which a New Left and a New Right emerged to challenge the country's post-World War II consensus. The center emptied out, especially after Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter failed to govern effectively from the center. The dominant figures of U.S. politics in the late 20th century were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, two presidents whose political identities were forged by the conflicts of the 1960s. The 2000 election was a showdown between Reaganism and Clintonism. The result? A tie.

Europeans are often perplexed by the failure of Americans to get over "the sixties." After all, they, too, were convulsed by great cultural changes during that turbulent decade. But only the United States experienced a ferocious backlash against those changes, partly based on America's religious culture.

Religion has lost influence everywhere in the industrial world. But in America, it continues to thrive. In the early 1990s, I held a post as visiting professor of American politics at a leading Jesuit university. One of the perquisites of that position was an invitation to tea with the cardinal. After we exchanged pleasantries, the cardinal asked, "Is there anything happening in American politics that I should be aware of?"

"As a matter of fact, there is," I answered. "Since 1980, religious Americans of all faiths--fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics, even Orthodox Jews--have been moving toward the Republican Party. At the same time, secular Americans have found a home in the Democratic Party.

"This is something new in American politics," I explained. "We have never had a religious party in this country." Then I went a fateful step further, adding, "I'm a little uncomfortable with a religious party in this country."

The cardinal pounced. "Well, I'm a little uncomfortable with an irreligious party in this country," he said.

Stalemate.

By 2000, it was even more true that religiosity defined politics. Regular churchgoers voted heavily for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Nonobservant voters went strongly for then-Vice President Al Gore. American politics had become less and less about economic interests and more and more about lifestyle--a 1960s word.

What brought things to a head was Clinton. Clinton created an odd legacy in American politics. He brought the country together on policy and tore the country apart over values. Clinton really did create a policy consensus. And why not? He stole most of his policies from the Republicans. Clinton's most significant policy achievements--welfare reform, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a balanced budget--passed only because of Republican support.

For most Americans, however, Clinton's most important attribute wasn't his policies. It was his values. He was the first, and so far the only, president to come out of the culture of the 1960s. (Bush is of that generation, but not of that culture.)

Conservatives never accepted Clinton as legitimate, no matter how much they agreed with his policies. To them, Clinton was the draft dodger, the war protester, the womanizer, the truth-shader, the gun-hater, the gay-protector, the non-inhaling drug fiend.

Clinton may have gotten elected because of "the economy, stupid," but what defined his presidency was "the values, stupid." The 2000 election brought three decades of cultural conflict to a head. And neither side was able to prevail.

Stalemate.

This kind of close party balance is not the normal condition of American politics. Usually one party dominates: the Republicans in the early 20th century, the Democrats in the mid-20th century. The only other time we had a deadlock was during the 30 years after the Civil War.

Then the conflict was North vs. South, not liberal versus conservative. What were the politics of the late 19th century like? Bitter and intense party battles. Two reversals of the popular vote (1876 and 1888). And the partisan impeachment trial of a president (1868).

The current partisan stalemate seems likely to persist for a while. Despite President Bush's record high popularity, there's no evidence the Republican Party has acquired a lasting advantage. The latest USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll asked registered voters how they would vote for Congress. The result: 46% for the Democrat, 46% for the Republican.

Stalemate.

Can anything break the stalemate?

Redistricting goes into effect this December, and it's supposed to shake things up in the U.S. House of Representatives. But it won't. Redistricting is likely to perpetuate the stalemate because in state after state, most notably in California, new district lines were drawn to protect incumbents.

In a democracy, voters are supposed to choose the candidates. Redistricting allows the candidates to essentially choose the voters. And the candidates always choose voters who will keep them in office.

The stalemate of the late 19th century was broken when a new wave of progressive politics swept the country and cast aside old party divisions. A lot of people expected the trauma of Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism to create a new politics, turning the red state/blue state division of 2000 into ancient history.

But America's New War has not created America's New Politics. The war in Afghanistan has been nonpolitical. Now the Bush administration wants to expand that war into Iraq. The USA/CNN/Gallup Poll asked Americans how they feel about sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq. The result: 46% in favor, 50% opposed.

Stalemate.

Ominously, that stalemate has become highly politicized. Conservatives and Republicans favor using U.S. ground troops in Iraq. Liberals and Democrats are strongly opposed. This is the first time since Sept. 11 that a war issue has become partisan and divisive.

Iraq is likely to be far more controversial than Afghanistan. America's Old Politics--the political division of 2000--could end up infecting America's New War.

To comment on JWR contributor William Schneider's column, please click here.


03/31/02: Values and gas mileage?
03/25/02: Truly oppressed minorities
03/14/02: Reciprocal hostility
03/07/02: Bush's prudence
02/28/02: Is the 'clash of civilizations' becoming a political reality?
02/28/02: 'Cowboy' or not, Bush has the 'axis of evil' running scared
02/20/02: Could it be that the era of Big Government really is over?
01/31/02: 'Daddy issues' grab center stage
01/15/02: And, they're off
01/09/02: Three 'War Stars' are born
01/04/02: California cluelessness?
12/17/01: Congress' life or death issue
11/27/01: Our reinvigorated spendthrift Congress
11/27/01: Out of War, Peace?
11/14/01: The other war --- the one for public opinion
11/09/01: The mayor of New Yawk and the King of the World
11/07/01: An insurance policy on America
11/02/01: A nation of defiant optimists
10/30/01: Has Bush has flip-flopped on 'nation-building'?
10/23/01: The new political world
10/16/01: The return of big government
10/08/01: On political war
10/01/01: The "born-again" president
09/25/01: Making America squirm
09/14/01: The American spirit will not wane
09/10/01: What Dubya knows about the budget
08/13/01: Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized
08/09/01: Bush backers out to remake prez yet again
07/30/01: Will the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out?
07/23/01: Both political parties are full of ....
07/16/01: Empowered moderate Republicans
07/09/01: As goes New Jersey, so goes the nation?
07/02/01: Dubya: Like father, like son?
06/15/01: The new soccer moms
06/05/01: Deals or deadlock?
05/29/01: The War Between the States is heating up again
05/21/01: The answer is men
05/10/01: Bush v. Carter?

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© 2002, William Schneider