Kirkland: The Republican Party fuels hyper-partisanship

Will Kirkland, Columnist

Last Thursday, the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series brought Vox Editor-in-chief Ezra Klein to campus to speak about partisanship in American politics. His talk, like much of his writing for Vox since he started the site a year ago, was smart, funny, frank and hard-hitting. We knew he wasn’t going to pull any punches when he began his talk by saying all the political news we devour as college students makes us, in his words, “very stupid.”

His point was simple and well taken: hyper-partisanship in American politics has both led and followed a trend of hyper-partisanship in American political media, resulting in a heaping partisan pile of information to support either side of any argument. The more people read, research and engage in politics, the more convinced they become of their original ideological preconceptions and the less willing they are to take in new information that doesn’t conform with them. Take a quick glance at the headlines of the Huffington Post and Drudge Report, or Breitbart and the Daily Kos, if you don’t agree.

Charts of the political ideologies in Congress over the past few decades show distinct red and blue clumps migrating further and further from a depopulated center. “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction,” political scientists Christopher Hare, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal wrote in The Washington Post last February.

Driving the point home, they take their analysis of partisan polarization to the individual level. When first elected to the House in 1982, now-Senator John McCain was solidly to the right of the ideological mean of the Republican Party. Today, McCain is widely considered a moderate in the party.

Herein lies the crux of the issue: The Republican Party is more to blame for partisanship and polarization than the Democrats.

In previous columns, I’ve written about the need for cross-party dialogue and cooperation as both a matter of ending partisan chaos and a matter of respect and civic decency. Liberalism and conservatism, after all, are both legitimate political philosophies.

And yet as I listened to Klein speak last week, diplomatically adding the phrase “and liberals too” to his sentences about partisan conspiracy theories and politically motivated media coverage, I couldn’t fight the feeling that his politesse was masking an important truth. Influential liberals like Klein and others keep coming back to the idea that both sides are equally to blame, that both Republicans and Democrats have veered toward the extreme poles of their conservative and liberal ideologies. But that’s simply not the case.

John McCain’s journey from the right wing of the Republican Party to its shrinking moderate wing has very little do with John McCain. His policies and political views haven’t changed much on big issues, from immigration to hawkish foreign policy. It’s the Republican Party that’s changed, dragged to the right by the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s and, more recently, by the vociferous opposition to the Obama administration.

On issue after issue, you can trace the Republican Party’s evolution from center-right to far-right. Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Act in 1986, which granted legal status to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Now, Congressional Republicans compete over who can use the word “amnesty” more times on the House floor. Gov. Mitt Romney signed a Massachusetts health care reform act in 2006 that served as the structural inspiration for the Affordable Care Act. Today, repealing the ACA is an official Republican Party platform plank. The list goes on.

I realize this column could be seen as hypocritical: Here’s a liberal talking about the problem of partisanship and the need for reconciliation, and then saying it’s all Republicans’ fault. In truth, particularly when it comes to the polarization of the media, both sides are to blame. I understand how Fox News and MSNBC can be seen as part of the same problem.

But it is simply false and disingenuous to say that both sides have polarized equally or that both are equally guilty of politically motivated misrepresentations in the media.

Human-caused climate change, for example, is not a debate: nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998, California has mandated the restriction of water and Tuvalu may soon be under water. Meanwhile, the Republican head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee brings a snowball onto the Senate floor to refute global warming.

Hyper-partisanship in American politics and media is a problem, one that both sides of the equation need to address. Solving it, which is unlikely, would require Democrats and Republicans to compromise and accommodate opposing viewpoints. But when it comes to analyzing why and how things got to be this way, the blame is not equally shared. Addressing the issue in any serious way will require the Republican Party to come to terms with how much it has contributed to the current state of affairs.

William Kirkland is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].