Best of: Frances Lee on why bipartisanship is irrational
There are few conversations I’ve had on this show that are quite as relevant to our current political moment as this one with Princeton political scientist Frances Lee.
Joe Biden will occupy the White House come January, but pending the results of two runoff Senate elections in Georgia, Democrats either won’t control the Senate at all or will face a 50-50 split. In either case, an important question looms large over the incoming administration: Will Republican senators negotiate with Biden in good faith? Lee’s work is an indispensable framework for thinking about that inquiry.
In her most recent book, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign, Lee makes a point that sounds strange when you hear it but changes everything once you understand it. For most of American history, American politics has been under one-party rule. For decades, that party was the Republican Party. Then, for decades more, it was the Democratic Party. It’s only in the past few decades that control of Congress began flipping back and forth every few years, that presidential elections became routinely decided by a few percentage points, that both parties are always this close to gaining or losing the majority.
That kind of close competition, Lee writes, makes the daily compromises of bipartisan governance literally irrational. "Confrontation fits our strategy,” Dick Cheney once said. "Polarization often has very beneficial results. If everything is handled through compromise and conciliation, if there are no real issues dividing us from the Democrats, why should the country change and make us the majority?”
Why indeed? This is a conversation about that question, about how the system we have incentivizes a politics of confrontation we don’t seem to want and makes steady, stable governance a thing of the past.
The Imprint of Congress by David R. Mayhew
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson
Producer/Audio engineer - Jeff Geld
Researcher - Roge Karma
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