Last fall, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told me something interesting about the disruptions that lopsided elections can cause.
We tend to think that elections in which one party or the other racks up an overwhelming majority should calm the body politic. A landslide is supposed to mean that the people have spoken decisively and the winner is supposed to have a mandate. That should end the arguments and put a stop to strife, right?
Not really, said Lugar.
He argued the opposite is true. Huge majorities encourage the party in power toward arrogance and overreaching. He said it leads the majority party to believe that it can and should ram anything it wants through the process.
When Lugar and I talked, the Republican Party to which Lugar belongs was approaching the end of its vehement two-year campaign to derail and overturn the “mandate” Barack Obama and the Democrats had won nationally in 2008. The effort to roll back the Democrats’ gains gave rise to the Tea Party, which itself gave rise to the fanciful notion that Obama was the second coming of Lenin.
Lugar, of course, was pointing his finger at the Democrats in power in the U.S. Senate and indicting the majority’s methods of pushing through health care reform, in particular. There are many words that could be used to describe those methods. The word “gentle” would not be among them.
Lugar said that dividing power between the parties more equally would force them to negotiate and work with each other. That, in turn, would lead to more peace and less pettiness in the process.
At the time, I wasn’t sold on Lugar’s argument. Coming, as it did, in the midst of a heated election season, it seemed like yet another run-through of campaign talking points.
A few months later, it’s easy to see things differently. We’ve seen state government paralyzed as Democrats in the state House of Representatives fled to Illinois after Republicans tried to curtail unions’ collective bargaining powers—an episode that made the ongoing mud wrestling match that is national politics seem genteel by comparison. It now appears Lugar didn’t take his argument far enough.
He was right about what lopsided victories do to majorities.
But he didn’t say a word about what landslides do to the minority party. (To be fair to the senator, that may be because I didn’t pursue that line of questioning in the interview. I should have.)
The Republican Party at the national level was pretty much stripped to its base after the 2008 election. The same thing happened to Democrats at the state level in 2010.
A party’s base is a funny thing. The people who make up that base supply the party’s energy, its drive and its reason for being.
The base, though, also is the part of the political party that is most easily threatened. The people who form the base come together because they feel the need for strength in numbers. They feel that because they think their interests or their way of life is under assault.
For that reason, the base is the part of the party that is least likely to be willing to negotiate or work together with political opponents. It also is the part most likely to take desperate actions.
When you think you’re fighting for your life, you don’t necessarily believe restraint is a virtue.
We’ve seen this dynamic of the majority overreaching and the minority lashing back play out at the national and state levels. I suspect we’re going to see much more of the same in the years ahead—at least until we recognize, once again, that the genius of the American political system is the way it assimilates diverging political views. What such a system lacks in efficiency it makes up for in relative stability.
Lugar is right. As long we keep giving one party or the other an iron grip on the steering wheel of the political process, we’re going to be in for a lot of bumpy rides.•
Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and hosts the weekly news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.