In my last post I wrote that John Zaller’s course Public opinion, mass media, parties, and elections (audio feed, website), gave me a whole new way to look at the news. Today’s newspaper furnished an example, an op-ed piece by Victor Davis Hanson, a well-known conservative pundit. In it Hanson takes Barack Obama to task for not fulfilling his campaign rhetoric, and governing as a post-partisan president.
So, where did we get the idea that a nonpartisan government is desirable or even possible?
The idea it seems has a long pedigree. Zaller explains that the framers of our Constitution tried to design a political system without “factions,” their term for political parties. They hoped to create a government run by public-spirited upper-class citizens (like themselves) who would make the right decisions in the public interest.
This idea quickly foundered on the rocks of the reality that people disagree (often violently) about what constitutes the “right decision.” And so our political parties were born. But the ideal lived on, and gained new momentum during the progressive era of the early 20th century. And pundits like Victor Davis Hanson continue to give it currency, mainly when their own party is out of power. Remember how liberals castigated George W. Bush for failing to live up to his own pledges of bipartisanship?
In Zaller’s view, each party is a coalition of “intense policy demanders” who have strong opinions on a range of issues. And once they gain power, they do whatever it takes to enact their agendas. That’s why they play the game.
It’s an old cliché that politicians declare their forthright and courageous support of motherhood and apple pie. Add to that the promise to “clasp hands across the aisle,” and end partisan bickering. But it will never happen, or at least until the contentious issues disappear, and we all see things the same way.