Thursday, November 09, 2006

Divided Government is Unified Government

The election of a Democratic Majority in both houses of Congress with two more years left in George Bush's second term have of course already raised the spectre of "gridlock" and divided government. Divided government was once a mainstay of the American political system, particularly since the Great Depression as Democrats controlled Congress and particularly after WWII, Republicans won the presidency. So in some ways, the results Tuesday reflected a return to the norm of democratic stability Americans knew so well for the past near century.

But I actually think that the election of Democrats Tuesday will, for a time at least, result in a much more truly unified government than that which preceded it. While Republican control of Congress and the Presidency for most of the post-2000 period was a partisanly unified government witnessed for only very brief periods in modern history, it was not a unified government in the sense that each party or most segments of society had a stake in it. For the past six years, only Republicans were participating in government. Only Republicans were functional contributors to policy-making decisions and political life, a situation exacerbated both by a runaway executive using "signing-statements" and a "unitary executive theory" to run roughshod over Congress and its partisan opponents as well as by a Congressional Majority that sought to exclude Democrats from the lobbying world (aka the K Street Project) and made legislation in hide-away conferences, away from the prying eyes of elected Democrats.

One of the results of this two-pronged act of aggression on the part of the president and congressional leadership was an oppositional party that had little stake in supporting bi-partisan fixes to Social Security and Medicare or the "war on terrorism". This last point is especially instructive. As Iraq descended into anarchy, media conservatives and Republican leaders frequently complained that the Democrats wanted "us" to "lose" in Iraq. But while many Democrats opportunistically backed the 2002 resolution "authorizing force" in Iraq, the failure of Republicans in Congress to provide meaningful oversight of the war effort left Democrats without a role or stake in the "war on terrorism". In turn, Republicans simply branded Democrats and Democratic voters as traitors, defeatists or appeasers anyway, regardless of whatever legislative support Democrats had originally given the president. Without input for Iraq policy, Republicans were ensured of getting their way in terms of policy formulation, but in terms of policy implementation and execution, shutting out Democrats resulted in an unevaluated, broken and increasingly unpopular war effort and led to the absence of an oppositional party trusted to back up the administration when things went sour.

So, rather than unified government, America actually endured a divided government and a divided citizenry for the past six years.

Now that Democrats will be wielding the gavels in both houses of Congress, a wider array of Americans can be assured of representation and participation. And this will be especially important in resolving the situation in Iraq and confronting Islamic terrorism more broadly. Although the president will of course continue to dominate foreign policy making, Democrats will have a genuine opportunity to participate, through oversight hearings and appropriations, the running of government.

Additionally, the worst of all Republican abuses--rhetorically pitting one region of the country against another and trying to favor one region over another--aka waging the Culture War, will also become more difficult if not foolhardy. In practice, unified government under conservative Republicans was one in which the South and "heartland" were glorified while the West and East Coasts were denigrated. In other words, "unified" government was actually divided government. In the lead-up to the elections, waged a rhetorically regional civil war, trying to inflame their base by alluding to the regional base and demographic constituencies of would-be Democratic Speakers and chairmen. And even after the election, some Republicans are still mindlessly chanting "Pelosi", "San Francisco", "values", and "Middle America" as if their agenda and dreams for America can be advanced by conquering the "enemy within". But as the Mid-West and Mountain West join the West and East Coasts in creating Democratic majorities, the Republicans' reliance on its "southern strategy" will come to be seen as politically and practically bankrupt. And if the Republicans want to gain a majority again, they'll need to scrounge up candidates and voters in regions outside the South, outside of the "heartland" to do it. Rhetorical and symbolic calls designed to pitt Americans against one another won't stand.

So, let's welcome "divided" government as the true, "unified" government.

The New Democratic Majority

It shouldn't be surprising to hear media conservatives claim either that even though the Democrats captured Congress on Tuesday, it wasn't really the Democrats that won, it was the Republicans that lost, or that the new Democratic members are more conservative than liberal, so it was really conservatism that triumphed, blah, blah, blah.

But let's look at the House results first. Here is the state and regional distribution of new Democratic seats as of this writing;*

Northeast: 10 = PA(4); NY(2); NH(2); CT(2)
Pacific West: 1 = CA(1)
Mountain West: 3 = AZ(2); CO(1)
Mid-West: 7 = KS(1); IN(3); IA(1); MN(1); OH(1)
South: 5 = FL(2); NC(1); KY(1); TX(1)

While I can't claim thorough knowledge of each and every one of these incoming members, I'm going to speculate that for all 26 of them, they were the less conservative contender in each race. So the Democratic victory was in every sense, a triumph, however temporal, of progressivism, or moderation, or liberalism, however you want to call it, over conservatism.

It is worth conceding that the Foley seat in Florida and the DeLay seat in Texas were cases in which the Republican candidate was forced out of office too late in the game to re-nominate and put on the ballot a replacement candidate; in the Texas case in particular, the Republican was a write-in if I understand it, making the challenge for the GOP there particularly difficult.

And it's also worth noting that in one PA and one NY race, the Republican incumbent was involved in some sort of woman-abusing, domestic dispute issue, relegating the effect of policy issues in those races to the back burner. Of course, since the GOP once trumpeted the supreme importance of "character" in politics, than the fact that the GOP candidates lost on the basis of "character" issues shouldn't take away from the Democratic successes there.

But in any event, with close to a third of the new Democrats coming from the Northeast, this election contributed to the on-going geographical realignment between the parties, as the Northeast becomes more Democratic and the South more Republican.

Meanwhile, Democrats made at last modest gains throughout the country, including the South and Mountain West where Republicans have been the strongest.

Much can be said for the U.S. Senate. There's no question that the Democratic victor in each case will be more liberal than the soon-to-be-ex Senator, even in PA where one anti-abortion Senator replaces another.

But even beyond ideology, the Democratic victories and victors in Montana, VA, and PA are particularly heartening. In each case, what I would call the politics of seriousness and reason triumphed over the politics of corruption, empty-suitism, and malevolent ideology, respectively. In their own way, Burns, Allen and Santorum were each symbols of what ails the American polity: Big Money; Banality; and Religious Fundamentalism. And their successors promise to be voices of moderation and plain-spokenness, which considering what the country has gone through for the last 12, if not the last 40 years, will be a welcome change, even if that change is not a textbook or talk-radio charicature of liberalism.

So, if Republicans want to claim that their cause has not suffered, so be it. If they want to stay in denial, they're welcome to it, now that their hands have been removed from at least some of the levers of power. But what I anticipate the next two years will show is that the conservative dream of remaking the world and USA in its own image will have been ship-wrecked if not irreparably halted.

*Media reports indicate 28-29 new Democratic members, so I'm a couple short here. I didn't count the new Democrat in Vermont, who replaces Independent Bernie Sanders, because Sanders caucused with the Democrats.