Politics is tribal, often built on difference and division. Success can depend on how effectively opponents are cast as somehow "impure" or "the other."
Ross Douthat, in reviewing Rick Perlstein's book "Nixonland," claimed that "divisive rhetoric" is practically built into our system: "'Positive polarization' is a trick that all majority-building politicians have to manage, and the idea that one's political foes are not merely wrong but un-American is as old as the 1800 election."
Still, differentiating values and demonizing opponents aren't rhetorical equivalents. Not all politics is "divide and conquer," and some forms of "positive polarization" are more malignant than others.
Thus, Nixon's "Southern Strategy" echoes in the morphed racism of current attempts at voter suppression, exemplified by serpentine restrictions, limiting access and crass gerrymandering. The 24/7 negative campaign had been field-tested before Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, but many observers would agree that something changed when the budget battles of 1995 and 1996 led to a shutdown of the federal government. Instead of politics leading to policy, politics became the policy.
Although Gingrich still claims the policy -- or politics -- of the government shutdown was successful, the Republican Party ultimately suffered in the polls and tarred Gingrich's image sufficiently that some House Republican leaders would attempt a coup in 1997, and Gingrich was forced to resign a year later.
Unfortunately for Republicans -- and the country -- the party re-emphasized the "politics is policy" after Obama's election, threatening us all with "deja vu all over again."
Tea party Republicans want to return to what amounts to political blackmail: Defund Obamacare or we'll shut down the government. The Republican establishment, maybe no less committed to "positive polarization," but certainly more pragmatic, attacked the idea full force. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney all came out against the scheme. Even some conservative senators opposed it: Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn called it "a pregnant strategy that will deliver nothing other than pain," and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said shutting down the government "is not the right way." Further, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, noted, a shutdown wouldn't defund health care.
Only former House Speaker Gingrich was keen on another showdown, telling tea party Republicans to forge ahead with their effort.
I said above, "unfortunately for the country," and some might wonder I, of all people, am discouraging this lemming-like impulse among Republicans. I'll tell you why: As Thomas Jefferson said, "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend." And, as I am an American, I want the best for all Americans, even those I disagree with. That means preserving our institutions, so that we are "a government of laws, and not of men," as John Adams said.
There has been, until recently, a consensus about how our institutions should work: The majority generally rules, but it must compromise with and acknowledge the concerns of the minority. We have balances of power to prevent two tyrannies: a tyranny of the majority and a tyranny of the minority.
We are now in danger of succumbing to the latter.
The filibuster, for example, was intended to give a minority of senators, or even a single senator, a chance to be heard. (As the Roosevelt Institute puts it, "think Jimmy Stewart in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.'") Instead of the Senate being a "cooling chamber" for legislation, however, now, thanks to the threat and abuse of the filibuster, it's become a cryogenic chamber -- freezing legislation until the zombie revolution.
Two-thirds of all filibusters have occurred since 1980, and Sen. McConnell has orchestrated 427 and counting. In order to get the Senate to vote on legislation -- and executive branch nominations -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to wipe the filibuster from the books. Are we at such an impasse?
Apparently. It's been the custom, except when a candidate is demonstrably unqualified, for the Senate to let the president have the people he needs to run the executive branch. But the filibuster threat has handicapped the executive branch, forcing it to work under acting directors and temporary appointments. No institution or business can run effectively that way. And the courts have had judgeships go vacant out of political spite. We're crippling the functioning of our government to thwart election outcomes.
Which returns us to the government shutdown of 1995 and its sequel in 2011 -- and another potential sequel this year. In the crisis of 1995-96, Republicans under Gingrich threatened to refuse to raise the debt limit. The shutdown of government and the potential of putting the country in default backfired. Republicans tried it again in 2011, and it backfired on them in 2012.
If the tea party Republicans force the issue, it will probably backfire again. But at what cost to the country?
Romney asked, "What would come next when soldiers aren't paid, when seniors fear for their Medicare and Social Security, and when the FBI is off duty?" Is political purity really worth it?
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.