WASHINGTON — As the 114th Congress begins in earnest, there are a number of things — such as tax and immigration reform and trade agreements — that political adults would like to get done for the good of the country. A commitment to incrementalism and compromise can be found, with sufficient diligence, among individual lawmakers in both parties.
But these scattered good intentions are as unlikely to cohere as dry sand. This is not just a function of policy disagreement. President Obama and congressional Republicans hold fundamentally different views of recent political history, particularly the outcome of the November midterm election.
The GOP is feeling the momentum of its best congressional performance since the New Deal, and Senate Republicans are enjoying the pleasing weight of committee gavels in their hands. Elected Republicans generally believe that Obama was humbled by voters and should act like it — that he should make concessions commensurate to his losses, as President Clinton did following his 1994 midterm defeat.
Obama, in contrast, seems to view the November outcome as his final liberation from a dirty political game characterized by complete Republican bad faith. He finds no repudiation in the verdict of an unrepresentative, midterm electorate. And he is no longer required to pretend that he cares about the political fate of the 4th District of Podunk. His reaction to the election has been to seek new avenues of executive action as an alternative to congressional dysfunction. So far, he has been politically rewarded.
This type of polarization seems more psychological than ideological. Obama and congressional Republicans are inhabiting alternative political realities, with no overlap in which compromise might take root. The two sides are not simply disagreeing about the proper path up the mountain; they see a different mountain in a different place.
According to Frances Lee, an insightful political scientist at the University of Maryland, diverging interpretations of an election are not unusual. “The meaning of elections,” she told me, “is almost always contested.” One much-studied example is the 1984 presidential election, in which Ronald Reagan had a number of structural advantages, including an easy path to renomination and a strong economy. Over time, however, interpretations of the election outcome “were winnowed down to a focus on [Walter] Mondale’s mistake in saying he would raise taxes and his closeness to special interests,” according to Lee. The narrative of Mondale squandering the election won out.
Political scientists call this a “constructed explanation.” Election outcomes are not self-interpreting. “In reality,” said Sir Henry Sumner Maine, “the devotee of Democracy is much in the same position as the Greeks with their oracles. All agreed that the voice of an oracle was the voice of a god; but everybody allowed that when he spoke he was not as intelligible as might be desired.”
As to the 2014 election: “It may well be,” Lee told me, “that no single conventional wisdom will ever emerge. … Faced with ambiguity, people tend to believe what they want to believe. When people are surrounded by social networks that also want to believe the same thing, their views will harden further.”
Lee locates this disagreement within a broader electoral trend — a three-decade period of very close two-party competition. “I’d say that 2014 has done nothing to shake the two parties’ confidence that they can win control of U.S. national institutions. No party sees itself as a permanent minority. No party seems to believe it needs to fundamentally reform itself in order to compete. Post-2014, Republicans believe they have been given a vote of confidence from the voters and that Obama has been repudiated. Democrats are demoralized, but they don’t see themselves as having ‘lost’ the American people. Certainly, Democrats have no less confidence than before that they can win the 2016 presidential election.”
This is an underestimated source of dysfunction in American politics: The parties do not view themselves as losers, even when they lose. The 2012 election should have demonstrated to Republicans (among other lessons) that they need a seriously revised outreach to minorities, women and working-class voters. The 2014 election should have demonstrated to Democrats (among other lessons) that a reputation for unreconstructed liberalism seriously limits their geographic appeal.
Both parties could gain electoral advantages by realistically addressing their weaknesses, which would also open up the possibility of legislative progress. But everyone, unfortunately, seems to like what they see in the mirror.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.