Reform and the “Chaos Syndrome,” Part II

June 24, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Jonathan Chait disagrees with the Jonathan Rauch’s point about the bite-back effects of modern reform as one explanation for political dysfunction. The problem Chait sees is that the GOP has gone mad and that a reversal of course on reform—e.g. opening up more resources for the parties—won’t make any significant difference.

Rauch does not dispute that there is a limit to what can be expected of his reform-the-reforms program. He also looks for the source of the problem in wider causes, though his emphasis is not on the qualitative difference between the major parties’ styles, tone and tactics. He does suggest that the 1970’s reforms, including but not limited to the passion for full transparency, can make it harder to achieve constructive discussion and compromise even when this healthier politics might otherwise be possible.

Chait cites studies validating his case that the resistance to compromise with a reviled opposition has advanced to a destructive degree within the GOP. But there is evidence to suggest that this hyper-partisanship may be spreading and there may be less to distinguish partisans on this score over time if the current trend holds. Pew has just published a study concluding that “partisans’ views of the opposing party are now more negative than at any point in nearly a quarter of a century.” Among its findings: “Exactly half of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats said they find talking politics with a member of the opposing party to be ‘stressful and frustrating.’”

So Mann and Ornstein, and Chait, are not wrong to say that the GOP is making its own unique contribution to the disturbing political antipathies polluting politics and crippling government. They do err in imagining that this is the whole story, or that Rauch is mistaken in proposing measures to make the most of a positive change in direction, whenever that moment comes. When party leaders and members overcome the stress and frustration and speak in good faith to the “other side,” they should be able to do so more often with the doors closed; and when they cut a deal and need to bring their caucuses along, they should have the resources–campaign funds and even a bit of “pork”–to corral the support they need.

And this is not an “all or nothing” proposition. It does not require dismantling all limits or all disclosure. It means thinking in different terms about the point at which the aggressive regulation of politics becomes a kind anti-politics that falls far short of purifying government but helps damage its capacity to function.

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