Political “Mutual Adjustment” Is Gone

You can’t negotiate with terrorists or compromise with insurgents

Storming the Capitol, January 6, 2021 — Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Some fifty years ago, the late Yale University political scientist Charles E. Lindblom coined the concept of “Partisan Mutual Adjustment.” It was widely embraced by the political science community and was frequently discussed when I was studying government in the late seventies and teaching it in the early eighties — a period that in retrospect seems not only long-ago but even somewhat quaint.

Lindblom’s “PMA,” as it was commonly called, was an academic way of describing what most would generally recognize as “compromise,” a much more pedestrian expression of the basic PMA concept. Although conceptual PMA had many dimensions to it, Lindblom described it as a political system where values are, “discovered, invented, formed, reformed, considered, reconsidered, and where conflicting, reconciled… and finally brought to bear on public decisions.” Lindblom’s was a structure where differing perspectives and ideas are exchanged in a process leading to adjustment, and adjustment to consensus.

Lindblom asserted that getting on the road to adjustment and consensus inevitably meant that the result would not be wholesale change, as a democracy by structure and process almost inherently opposes major change, but would rather provide an iterative process of “incrementalism” — smaller changes that over time accumulate into significance. But as others have argued, such a system requires political actors who share, “agreement on objectives and a knowledge base sufficient to permit accurate prediction of consequences associated with available alternatives.”

In other words, PMA — or compromise — requires political actors who agree with the value of the system and are open to considering the perspectives and tenets of the other side. Inherent in that discussion is the recognition that both sides are operating from an acceptance of facts and the recognition of cause and effect. The absence of those qualities, as one authority most gently put it, “achieves a poorer aggregation of these values than would otherwise be possible.”

Throughout American history, we have seen periods, some of them rather lengthy, when differing views on specific subjects generated heated discussion. But the overall shared concept of the merits of democracy, as we practiced it, meant that after the hot words had been spoken the deep well of shared values would result in the type of accommodation once practiced by Senate leaders such as Bob Dole and George Mitchell, and House leaders such as Jerry Ford and Tip O’Neill. But those days, although not actually so distant chronologically, appear to be long gone.

Although certainly not the first to use this analogy, former Senator Joseph Lieberman used to note that when he first came to the Senate if the political spectrum were a football field the large majority of members were ideologically between the two forty-yard lines. But by the time he left, they were both inside their respective twenty-yard lines.

Although Lieberman was correct in seeing an evacuation of the middle, he was wrong in describing its actual balance. As congressional scholars Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein noted in their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, “one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier (emphasis added) — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the political legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Note that Mann and Ornstein wrote these words six years before Trump’s election, and nearly a decade before the sad events of January 6, 2021 — now known simply as 1/6. It is also of note that Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the conservative think tank where Newt Gingrich once hung his hat just down the hall.

Once again, in simpler terms, what Mann and Ornstein were saying was that the Republican Party now plays inside the five-yard line of Lieberman’s ideological gridiron. The Democrats by contrast are likely just outside their thirty-five. This positional skewing is the essence of “Asymmetric Partisanship,” and it is increasingly destructive to the United States.

There are two clear data points showing the scale of this striking asymmetry (and a validation of Mann and Ornstein’s view a decade ago), one occurring in 2016 and the other in 2021. First, although those on the right claim that the Democratic Party has swung hard left, and that its progressive wing is calling the shots and engineering this shift, the shift is clearly comparatively marginal.

It must be recalled that in 2016, after a very contentious presidential primary process, the Democrats nominated for president former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, widely viewed as more left leaning than her husband Bill Clinton, the 40th president, but clearly less to the left than her main primary opponent, ultra-liberal Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

It is certainly true that during the 2016 Democratic primary process, Sanders enjoyed considerable — and passionate — liberal support. And to assuage that passion, and attract Sanders’ liberal voters, Clinton shifted leftward on many issues. Still, after all the votes were counted, Clinton was the nominee, a clear indication that if Clinton was not standing between the forty-yard lines, she was certainly between the thirty-fives.

The Republican Party, by stark contrast, nominated Donald Trump, whose positions — while somewhat fluid and often difficult to categorize, were well inside the twenty-yard line on his end of the field — probably inside the ten. That would be one reason Trump lost the popular vote by the largest margin of any candidate who became president courtesy of the “electoral college.” Nonetheless, Clinton graciously conceded the election even though Pennsylvania and Michigan had narrowly voted Republican for the first time since 1988, and Wisconsin for the first time since 1984. Trump’s victory came because he had breached that so-called “Blue Wall.” Still, Clinton accepted the result and did not call for numerous recounts, much less declare vast electoral fraud.

Trump’s supporters and the Republican control of Congress during his first two years in office further hardened the positions of both parties. In addition, the often contentious but still workable relationship been past Senate majority and minority leaders, such as Bill Frist and Tom Daschle, yielded to a relationship between Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles Schumer that was harshly confrontational. The comparative distinction of McConnell and Schumer’s relationship even with that of Senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell over twenty years earlier could not have been starker.

But the second data point is arguably even more suggestive. After Trump’s 2017 inauguration, nearly a half million protesters descended on Washington voicing their disapproval of Trump — both his policies and his persona. The crowd filled much of the major streets between the White House and Capitol Hill — Pennsylvania, Constitution, and Independence Avenues — and after some fiery speeches marched towards the White House chanting and waving signs as it strolled along the south side of the executive mansion before turning north on 17th Street and slowly passing the famous West Wing.

January 21, 2017, 14th Street in DC — Photo courtesy of the author

But during the 2017 march there was no violence, no storming of the White House, no attempt to climb its perimeter fences, and no confrontation with security personnel. This was a large gathering of American citizens unhappy with the result of the election, yet peacefully expressing their displeasure as unambiguously allowed by the Constitution. As distasteful as they felt it was, as disappointed as they were, they still accepted the reality that the election was over, and Trump was now president. Moreover, none were wearing tactical gear and communicating over encrypted cell phones.

Outside the White House, January 21, 2017 — Photo courtesy of the author

The differences between the January 2017 crowd with the one that attacked the US Capitol on 1/6 could not be more dramatic. The January 6th mob, summoned and then excited by Trump, was far from peaceful. The scenes filling television screens across the United States speak for themselves. The more than seven hundred insurgents subsequently arrested and indicted (note Mann and Ornstein’s prophetic 2012 use of the word “insurgent”) fill in more of the story, as do recent indictments that now charge sedition. But those actions on 1/6 were excused and eventually embraced by Republicans while simultaneously being condemned by Democrats. A year later, almost no Republicans attended the 1/6 remembrance events held at the Capitol on the sorry spectacle’s first anniversary.

Clinton accepted the electoral results in 2016, to date Trump has not. Clinton neither organized nor attended the “Women’s March” of January 21, 2017; while Trump summoned, stimulated, and then directed the mob he roused four years later. Clinton did not proffer unfounded accusations about electoral fraud in the states she surprisingly lost with no evidence to support the claims; Trump has done so daily for over a year. These starkly different behaviors are compelling evidence of the asymmetric partisanship that has settled in, and by any measure it is a disturbing trend.

Despite their general leftward shift, the Democratic party still advocates working within the constitutional system and respecting its norms. There are, without doubt, exceptions to this observation, and the Democratic left seemingly gets more attention than its more numerous centrist members. Democratic leaders have made efforts at bipartisanship, such as accepting the proposal for the structure of a January 6th investigation made by Republicans appointed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, only to have Republicans themselves — including McCarthy — reject their own proposal. Why? Because even when it comes to examining a stunningly obvious outbreak of political radicalism, Republicans are unwilling to join with Democrats seeking to contain the damage and discourage any recurrence. The only rational conclusion to that behavior is that the current Republican party embraces such extremism.

The one redeeming feature of the two events in Washington, the 2017 Women’s March and the 2021 insurrection, is that four times more people attended the first. That would offer some comfort by suggesting that those who have become the most radicalized are a minority faction within the overall American body politic. But they are a dangerous faction. They see their cause through a clouded prism of righteousness, and it is a righteousness heavily fueled by information that is largely wrong and frequently outrageous. This is a continuing danger.

Colgate University political scientist Michael Hayes once stated that, “political parties must be moderate and pragmatic, permitting a convergence to an ever-evolving political center.” Moderation and pragmatism are nearly impossible to find when one party shifts somewhat from the center while the other moves even more sharply in the opposite direction, becoming flat-out extreme, deciding not to adhere to the usual political structures, to ignore the established norms, and even — as seen on 1/6 — to outright assault them.

Such a condition essentially means that currently, the basic building blocks of partisan mutual adjustment simply don’t exist, and their absence creates a dangerous condition. President Joseph Biden seems to be slowly embracing this disheartening reality. Returning to a political contest played between the ideological forty-yard lines is clearly desirable, but currently infeasible.

Somehow, the nation’s political contest must at least be played between and certainly not outside the thirties. Moving back to that place, especially for those starting inside the five, will take political leadership and courage. It requires the rejection of extremism and the acceptance of a “knowledge base.” And getting there is not only a national imperative, but a matter of urgent national hygiene.



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