Open University

Room For Disagreement

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In gracious response to my question about the desirability of a more populist Democratic Party, Brad DeLong writes,

My natural home is in the bipartisan center....

Me too, Gogo. But, how long have we been homeless now? I forget.

More seriously, this is an issue that affects directly the issue of institutions, group behavior, and polarization already evidently a major theme of Open University.

DeLong explains,

I am ... a reality-based center-left technocrat.... My natural home is in the bipartisan center, arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share--world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety.

But does room for this kind of disagreement actually exist, or flourish, between parties? or is it more usually found among factions of the same party?

As I think about it, I can imagine a pretty good argument that not only has the Democratic Party been very good at reality-based, technocratic compromises on matters of political economy during eras when it dominated government, but that this has worked better than any era of bipartisan compromise. Woodrow Wilson's first term, during which the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, brought the Federal Reserve System, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and an income tax to displace the tariff. The New Deal brought a strengthened Federal Reserve, the Social Security system, the FDIC, and various other generally salutary bits of policy.

In both cases, the more ideologically outré goals of left or populist factions were suppressed by the moderate and conservative wings of the party. Wilson made highly--some would say excessively--compromising appointments to the Federal Reserve Board. FDR designed Social Security and other legislation as moderate alternatives to more populist policies.

By contrast, it's hard to point to similarly productive and effective eras of bipartisan compromise in the area of reality-based, technocratic policies, at least at the national level. (Bill Whalen and Chris LeHane are now saying we're getting productive and effective politics out of California's Republican governor and Democratic assembly; we'll see. You might also make a case that New York State politics in the progressive era were productive, effective, and bipartisan.) I suppose parts of the Eisenhower, Nixon, or Clinton eras might qualify as bipartisan, technocratic and successful: but I do not know that we would claim they were more successful than these partisan eras.

And as far as partisan effectiveness goes, you could say that the Republican-dominated 1920s and early 2000s have brought similarly productive legislative eras; that they have been effective in the reality-based, technocratic sense is at best unproven.

So while I share with DeLong and my fellows here at Open U the joy in reality-based arguments among people who share common goals but dispute how to reach them, I don't think it's necessarily true that such useful disputes more often occur between people aligned with politically opposed institutions.

--Eric Rauchway

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