More parties — or better ones

There is a celebratory e-mail going around among liberals — they call themselves progressive in this missive — declaring that they actually won Tuesday.

You need to stop laughing. That is not productive political discourse.

Most of the more liberal Democratic incumbent members of the House of Representatives indeed did get re-elected. The losses cut deeper among more moderate Democratic members or among so-called Blue Dogs of a center-right bent.

But that does not mean the liberals won. It means, quite to the contrary, they are more isolated than ever, more marginalized, practically quarantined, in fact, in safe little blue dots on the map representing places that are irreversibly Democratic on account of being urban and heavily populated by minorities.

It does not lessen the problem for Democrats when they win only the cinch districts and lose all the swing ones. It exacerbates the problem.

The Democrats had fashioned their now-dissolved House majority tenuously and by finesses. They had won swing districts in recent years only by running less-strident versions of the Republicans.

But this time the Republicans could not get too strident for the angry and scared independent voters. Thus the Democratic house of cards tumbled.

Absent finesses, we fall back to this situation: Every 10 years incumbent members of Congress lean on their home-state legislators to redraw their districts pursuant to new census data in ways that will enhance their re-election, or at least preserve it. So liberal districts become more liberally safe, conservative districts become more conservatively safe and the gap between them comprising competitive places inhabited by middle America grows ever larger.

Everyone in the middle stays mad at the ever-polarizing political parties, either for the extremism of what they propose, or for their inability to fashion anything constructive, or of their profoundly insurmountable differences. So independents grow in number and throw out one party this year and the other party two years after that.

Two extreme and polarized parties will give us policy proposals that will be guaranteed to alarm a majority of the people and probably never stand a chance of passage, especially in the Senate, where an extraordinary majority is required to do anything really important.

I’m not seeing in that equation how problems get addressed boldly, cooperatively and with innovation.

This is a wholly dysfunctional cycle that cannot be sustained if America is to long survive and be strong.

So it is delusion at best and dishonesty at worst for the surviving liberal Democrats in safe liberal districts to assert that the returns indicate the Democrats ought to cuddle up around them and flex their liberal muscles more vigorously and proudly.

The Democrats lost for the very reason that the new president over-obliged his left base and under-obliged the decisive center.

Is there a way out of this self-perpetuating, self-strengthening cycle?

Here are two ideas, neither likely, but one decidedly more plausible than the other.

One party could perform notably better than the other in designing new-idea politics appealing to a new generation through a combination of real fiscal discipline and liberal social tolerance — getting the deficit down and letting gays serve openly in the military, for example.

Or we could evolve into that British system that I whimsically longed for a few months ago. We could have four political parties, ranging, right to left, from the Tea Party to the Republicans to the Democrats to the Progressives. With no one getting a majority in a four-way split, two of those would have to work out a governing majority and a governing agenda.

Don’t like it? So give me a better idea. What we are doing is not working, nor is it likely to somehow magically start to work.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@


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