Media Hypes Partisanship and Tea Party, Misses the Real Story

Partisan debates in Congress don't amount to the full story.

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By Matthew Dallek, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Partisanship is spinning out of control, while the United States has become paralyzed and unable to tackle its most urgent challenges. That’s one of the most commonly uttered refrains of recent years, and it will be heard in the days following Tuesday's primary results. As with so much of what passes for conventional wisdom, however, this refrain is overdrawn and oversimplified.

Northwestern political scientist Laurel Harbridge shows in her research how partisan debates in Congress don't amount to the full story; in fact, bipartisan cosponsorship of committee-level legislation has remained “relatively constant” in recent decades. She has written that Congress still produces "a great deal of bipartisan legislation" at the committee stage (via co-sponsorship).

And this current moment isn’t necessarily more divisive and incendiary than earlier eras, either. Contrary to its image, the 1950s wasn’t primarily an age of bipartisan good feelings. Sen. Joe McCarthy charged that communists were overrunning the Truman administration, while a fiercely partisan debate about national security and political toughness erupted about which party enabled the communist takeover of China. And white violence committed against peaceful African-American protesters in the South was a terrible staple of '50s-era politics. 

In 2010, the news media sometimes shortchanges the significant counterweights that challenge prevailing partisan politics: Sen. Ron Wyden, for example, is picking up where Sen. Ted Kennedy left off. Politically liberal, Wyden has also cosponsored healthcare reform legislation with conservative Republican Sen. Robert Bennett because he wants to get things done. Now he is cosponsoring a tax reform proposal with GOP Sen. Judd Gregg that could help trim the sizable federal deficit, simplify the tax code, and ultimately make the code fairer and more progressive. [Follow the money in Congress.]

Serious reporters continue to report on the news, informing their readers about policy-making while generally sidestepping the often-petty debates that prevail in the corrosive culture of cable television news shows. President Obama’s University of Michigan commencement address last month was an in-depth, thoughtful rebuttal to the forces of incivility in our electoral politics.
A conference co-sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center (where I’m a visiting scholar), the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, and the U.S. National Archives is another sign of the times. Entitled Breaking the Stalemate: Renewing a Bipartisan Dialogue, it takes place on Wednesday, June 16, at Washington’s National Archives Building. Former congressional leaders such as Bob Michel and Tom Foley will discuss institutional factors fueling partisan divisions, while analysts and reporters from Stu Rothenberg to the New York Times' Jackie Calmes will examine issues of new media and partisan politics and how policy stalemates have sometimes been overcome in recent times.
Since Obama's election, the Tea Party has drawn extraordinary attention from the news media. The movement is a significant story, and it deserves to be covered. Yet the single-minded focus on the politics of extremism has shortchanged a set of unheralded developments that complicate the prevailing partisan narrative.

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