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5 More Questions: Doug Rossinow on our era’s intense partisanship

Doug Rossinow is awaiting the January publication of his newest book, “The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s.”

Doug Rossinow: "Certainly there is an echo chamber effect that reinforces the party line. But I don’t think that’s what’s causing partisan resistance to Obama’s agenda."
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

A couple of weeks ago the Star Tribune published “Perhaps the verdict on Obama is not yet in,” a commentary by Doug Rossinow, a professor of history at Metropolitan State University. The gist was that despite what we’re regularly told about President Barack Obama’s slumping approval ratings and political stature — likely to be aggravated by the results of today’s election — he is operating in a unique environment, historically speaking.

Unlike the self-inflicted miseries suffered by Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in their sixth year in office, Obama has no comparable scandal consuming his time and energy. What he does have is a level of partisanship unlike anything in decades, an opposition steadfastly refusing to cooperate on any significant legislation he proposes, no matter how dire and universal the problem.

Says Rossinow, “ … much of what we hear is untrue. Obama’s tattered approval ratings are due to the intensified partisanship of our era. His forthcoming (likely) political setback in Congress will be consistent with historic tendencies. His presidency in some ways is in better shape than those of his predecessors at similar points in their regimes.”

Younger than I had for some reason imagined, the Long Island-born Rossinow is awaiting the January publication of his newest book, “The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s,” the first line of which he says was non-negotiable with his editors. It reads, “In 1984 I turned 18 and voted for Ronald Reagan.”

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We talked over lunch at Keys restaurant in the Midway.

MinnPost: You say in your Strib commentary that we are living in a much more partisan time than when Reagan was in office. That doesn’t surprise anyone. But what do you see as the forces driving that partisanship?

Doug Rossinow: Partisanship has been building for quite a long time, and there are long-term causes. Chief among them is probably the gradual switch of the South from Democratic to Republican affiliation. Prior to that shift a lot of legislative coalitions in Congress used to cross party lines or regional lines, or both.

1994 with Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton was a huge inflection point. And now the process has intensified. Why? Well, there are relatively few U.S. House seats that are seriously contested. Part of that is due to redistricting. But it is also because of the closer and closer alignments of representations, especially in the South, with the ideological policy preferences of the pluralities of voters in those districts.

5 More QuestionsOf course, one of the questions that Democrats agonize over in this context is whether Obama is getting a worse time of it than Clinton because he is black. And I’ve always been dubious about that, because Clinton was given a very hard time. He took as much flak on a partisan basis as Obama in Washington.

But while in Washington Clinton and Obama both had a very difficult time with the opposition, you see on a mass basis Republicans in the country as a whole actually were willing to give Clinton measurably more support than Obama.

Now, whether that is because of the further intensification of partisanship, part of the long-term trend, or whether it’s because Obama is African-American, it’s difficult to say. But it is reasonable to think that [race] is a component of it.

Also, Clinton had the additional burden of being perceived from the start as this disreputable, sleazy guy. That was long before the Lewinsky scandal. But that wasn’t the case with Obama, and there’s been no debilitating scandal like that with him, and I say that understanding there are people who think scandalous things have occurred. But as a historian I see nothing that rises to the level of the Lewinsky scandal or Iran-Contra [under Reagan], which was an actual policy scandal.

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It’s actually remarkable that you have to go back so far to find a president in his second term who has been so scandal-free.

MP: Most people I think will accept the transfer of political influence in the South as a major contributor to hyper-partisanship. But do you see other drivers? Forces accelerating or aggravating partisanship?

DR: Well, again, there are long-term cultural shifts that have been going on for decades. There’s the loss of, I guess, what we’d call decorum. Rising informality. The ease of vulgar expression.

There has been of course a long history of outrageous political rhetoric. One of my favorites was the accusation spread during Andrew Jackson’s campaign against John Quincy Adams that Jackson’s mother was a prostitute who serviced British soldiers during the Revolutionary War.

But then there was a long period, from the early 1900s to about 1975, where there this sort of ethos of a progressive ideal of good government, clean government took hold. It was regarded as a business of upright men, and the worst excesses of politicians and press were modulated.

MP: It seems to me that many liberals or progressives bemoan the entire conservative media apparatus, what [former George W. Bush speechwriter] David Frum calls the  “conservative entertainment complex.” By this they mean Fox News, the vast number of conservative talk radio outlets, bloggers, etc. The assertion is that all that is the primary reason for hyper- partisanship. Do you think that is a valid charge? Or is conservative media over-regarded, and really just a simplistic boogey man that has much less influence than liberals give it credit for?

DR: Well, blogs seem kind of an even match. There’s plenty on either side. As far as news is concerned, I do think cable news leans to the right. Because I don’t think CNN is a partisan player, although MSNBC is clearly trying to be.

But something like Fox News it seems to me is preaching to the choir, so I don’t see how that has a profound effect on politics, unless you can show it has an influence on people other than those who are already inclined to a conservative point of view.

Certainly there is an echo chamber effect that reinforces the party line. But I don’t think that’s what’s causing partisan resistance to Obama’s agenda.

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Why, for example, did only one or two Republican senators support the stimulus bill when we had this horrible recession that was causing distress, obviously not just among Democrats? I don’t think that was because of Fox News. I could be wrong.

To me the stimulus bill was a fascinating moment in partisanship, because in a “normal environment” there would be bipartisan support for legislation like that, which was counteracting such profound distress. So it’s a pretty good index of the fact that Republicans in Congress were not going to support anything Obama proposed.

In that regard, one of the interesting things about the Republican Party since the 1980s is the interest in actual policy has dwindled. In a sense it’s logical. Because if you believe that government is bad, why bother coming up with policies that might work and risk undermining your argument?

Also, in the media environment there are a lot of policy wonks who have achieved superstar status with the rise of the blogosphere. People like Ezra Klein with Vox. And they have gravitated strongly to the Democratic camp in terms of their partisan affiliation. Now, is it because these guys happen to be liberal Democrats who grew up that way and got interested in policy? Or is it because people who are genuinely interested in policy have naturally gravitated to the Democrats because that’s the party that is interested in policy?

What we’ve got at the moment is one party that is moderately progressive, somewhat centrist and interested in policy and governance. Then we have another party that is pretty firmly anti-government, at least in terms of its doctrine, that is not that interested in governance.

MP: You lay out an impressive set of statistics on the “Sixth Year Blues,” with even Eisenhower and Reagan suffering large setbacks in Congress. Clearly it’s a recognizable pattern. So why do you think a reminder of this, a simple statement of context, is so lacking in day-to-day reporting? Is it laziness? Inconvenience? I mean, we’re talking at most a two-sentence reference.

DR: Why? Because reporters don’t talk to historians enough. [Laughs]. The media environment is not a history class. I don’t think it’s laziness. But rather that historical patterns are generally seen as a sidebar, something interesting but not part of the story. You know better than I, but journalism is rooted in “the story,” what’s happening now.

MP: So where do you go for the kind of historically rooted political information that you can trust? What do you dial into day after day?

DR: That’s a good question. I’ve got my Facebook friends like everyone else. And for truly historical information I have access through my work. But as a consumer I tend to go to sites that have a lot of detail about politics of the moment. No matter what criticisms people may make about the longer perspective or the longer view on the Internet, I think it’s been a huge boon to public discourse. I mean, there’s a certain mythology and the romantic view that “the filter” is gone. Everybody now has access to so-called raw data. But there’s so much more the news consumer has access to than 10 years ago. You may complain about the horse-race coverage, but the average consumer has so much more information available to them about a Senate campaign than they had 20 years ago. By any comparison they were truly in the dark back then.

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But to answer your question, I go to  538 and Vox.com, and I really like Andrew Sullivan. He’s a pretty thoughtful person. And he’s someone a bit like me, whose perspective has evolved and changed quite a bit since the 1980s. And I really like MinnPost. If I want to know what’s going on locally, that’s where I go.

MP: Aw, shucks.