03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Republican Struggle for "Ascendency"

They scorned "any idea of moderation" and greeted with contempt any effort "to understand a question from all sides." Their primary goal was "to acquire power" by frustrating those in authority at every turn. If the President "made a reasonable speech," they "took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect." Although "professing to serve the public interest," they in fact "were seeking to win" power "for themselves." In "their struggles for ascendency, nothing was barred."

A description of today's GOP by an outraged blogger? No. This voice of despair speaks across the millennia. It was written more than 2,400 years ago by the Greek scholar Thucydides in his brilliant history of the Peloponnesian War. But it does sound familiar, doesn't it?

Several weeks ago I had dinner with a friend who lamented what he termed the "blatant obstructionism" of congressional Republicans. He said they reminded him "of the Southern Democrats during the civil rights era, because they too used every means at their disposal to block change."

At first, I accepted this analogy, but then I realized it was wrong. The Southern Democrats did, indeed, use every means at their disposal to block civil rights legislation. But they sincerely believed that such legislation was bad public policy and was especially bad public policy for the South. No one doubted the sincerity of their opposition, even if many found it abhorrent. The congressional Republicans of today, however, seem determined to do everything possible to frustrate the President on all issues. Their goal seems less to be to enact legislation that serves the public interest than to make the President seem weak and ineffectual, and to thereby gain political "ascendency" for themselves.

This is not to say that congressional Republicans don't have sincere public policy differences with the President over health care, Afghanistan, the economy, climate control, energy policy, judicial nominations, and taxes. No doubt they do. It is to say, however, that they don't seem at all interested in finding common ground in order to further the public interest, even when the President offers compromises that alienate his own supporters.

Like the politicians described by Thucydides, Republican members of Congress now seem more deeply committed to their own partisan "ascendency" than to governing in a responsible manner. If politics is the "art of compromise," what we are seeing today is politics as the "art of obstruction."

This calls to mind an experience I had several years ago as a guest on the Bill O'Reilly show. The subject was supposed to be whether dissent in wartime is disloyal. But O'Reilly quickly shifted to a very different question. "Isn't it unpatriotic," he asked me, "for Americans to want our soldiers to die in Iraq because their deaths would harm the President politically?" The answer, of course, is "yes."

But then isn't it also "unpatriotic" for members of Congress to block health care reform or energy policy or climate change legislation or judicial nominations in the hope that the President's failure to solve the nation's most pressing problems will undermine his credibility and therefore gain for the Republicans a partisan political advantage? Where is Bill O'Reilly when we need him?

It's interesting to ask what created this state of affairs. As we know from Thucydides, this is hardly a new problem. But it seems worse now than at any time in living memory. Several factors have contributed to the sharp polarization of American politics.

First, and perhaps most important, was the realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties beginning in the 1960s. Until then, neither party was defined by a clear ideology. The Democrats included many white Southerners, who were still so furious at the party of Lincoln for the Civil War and Reconstruction that they couldn't bring themselves to vote Republican. The Republicans, on the other hand, included many socially-liberal individuals who favored the Republicans' generally conservative economic policies. Thus, party identity did not conform sharply to "conservative" and "liberal" ideological beliefs. This complicated politics, but it also ensured that members of the two parties would often find themselves in agreement on important issues.

With the civil rights movement, however, Southern Democrats finally figured out that it was time to get over their anger with the Republicans, and they began to shift their political allegiance. As the influx of Southern conservatives transformed the GOP, and as culture war issues began to inflame ideological differences on such emotional issues as abortion, homosexuality and gun control, socially-liberal Republicans found themselves increasingly estranged from their party and they gradually drifted over to the Democrats. As a result, we now have two ideologically-defined parties, and partisan polarization is a logical consequence of this development.

Second, with ever-more-sophisticated political gerrymandering, it became possible to create ever-more "safe" Republican and "safe" Democratic congressional districts. This meant that congressional candidates no longer had to run to the "middle." In Republican districts, Republicans could run to the right; and in Democratic districts, Democrats could run to the left. Middle-of-the road Republicans and Democrats became increasingly rare, thus contributing to the increased polarization of the parties and of our national politics.

Third, the Fairness Doctrine played a powerfully moderating role in public discourse until the 1980s. By requiring all broadcasters to be "fair and balanced" in their presentation of news and commentary, the Fairness Doctrine produced an era in which most Americans got most of their news and political commentary from Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, and Face the Nation.

Two changes caused the demise of the era of "responsible" broadcast journalism: The Reagan administration gutted the Fairness Doctrine, and the advent of cable led to the creation of highly politicized programming. Because people now get much of their political commentary from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Ed Schultz, the moderating influence of traditional journalism has been largely overwhelmed. Add to this the highly politicized commentary on the Internet, and it is easy to see how people already inclined to embrace more extreme views now get those views vigorously reinforced by the media they choose to read or watch. As a result, the common discourse of our democracy has been seriously undermined.

None of these changes is necessarily "bad" in its own right. But in combination they have fostered a political culture that elevates partisan combat over responsible governance. The "loyal opposition" now seems more interested in ensuring its "ascendency" than in serving the whole of the American people. Thucydides would find all this very familiar, and very sad.