Anyone who has ever invited guests of opposing political persuasions over to dinner will know how quickly it can all go wrong. Having imagined they’d exchange their interesting views about something vaguely neutral — European politics, say, or Russian literature — I’ve watched my normally civilized friends spend the evening shouting at one another about something utterly unrelated, such as whether the Pledge of Allegiance should contain the phrase “under God.” In the end, the only thing that can save such an evening is everybody’s sense of etiquette. Be polite to the hostess, say thank you when the coffee is poured, express admiration for the mixed berries with lemon mint sauce. Follow those rules and it is possible to change the subject, calm down, finish dinner. Fail to follow them and everyone goes home early.
American politics are like that too. For a rather long stretch of recent history, Congress operated rather like a friendly dinner party. Even if there were plenty of people on the left who didn’t much like people on the right, there were also enough moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats and pragmatists, in general, to keep legislation passing, committees functioning and voters voting. Where the rules and regulations didn’t quite fit the circumstances, collegiality papered over the cracks.
For better or for worse, we don’t live in that world anymore, and I see no point in feeling nostalgic for it. To the extent that the rise of partisanship reflects the existence of greater passions, on both the right and the left, maybe it’s a good thing that politics can channel them. If it means some people are shouting louder than they used too, it’s too bad. Either way, it’s clear that the rules of doing political business, as opposed to the time-hallowed habits and customs, have suddenly taken on a new importance.
To see what I mean, look at one extremely small issue: Last week, as Congress was struggling to get out of town for Thanksgiving, a sandbox fight broke out over whether the Senate should vote to confirm a handful of presidential appointees, among them the ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and Syria. As far as I could tell, there was no major substantive objection to any of them. But Senate Democrats, made grumpy by the contentious passage of the Medicare legislation, said they were annoyed by the Republican failure to appoint a promised bipartisan election commission. Republicans said they didn’t like some of the members of that election commission. I’m sure there were other reasons too — but the upshot is that Democrats blocked the confirmations and we won’t have ambassadors in several important places for several critical months. In the old days it might have been okay to barter and deal over confirmation hearings, as is the Senate’s custom. Now, we’d be a lot better off if there were a rule — how many appointments have to be confirmed in how much time — that everyone knew they had to follow.
The case for rules is much stronger where there are major issues involved. The urge to gerrymander congressional districts to somebody’s advantage isn’t new, but at least it used to take place in regular, 10-year cycles, following a census – meaning either party might lucky enough to be in charge. Now the Texas legislature has broken with precedent and redrawn its electoral districts after only two years, hoping to get more Republicans elected. Colorado’s legislature did the same. We’ve seen the results: Texas Democrats fleeing the state, state troopers sent to arrest them, lawsuits and more lawsuits. The Colorado redistricting was struck down this week by the state’s Supreme Court. Without a few rules — mandating that redistricting take place only every 10 years or requiring districts to be drawn, as in Iowa, according to a simple grid — it won’t be long before redistricting, like judicial confirmations, becomes another endless form of national agony, regardless of who’s in power.
I’ll admit, heavy regulation isn’t the most inspiring way to run a political system: One would like to think that a shared sense of national purpose would be enough to keep Congress functioning. But without the collegiality that so many now say they always despised, there isn’t a choice. A chilly, polite dinner is more bearable than one that ends with guests stomping out the door — and a system that functions according to the rules is better than one that doesn’t work at all.