Looking for our new site?

The Next Era of American Politics

Post-Partisanship, Progressivism, or Comeback Conservatism?

Phillip Longman began by framing the core question of the event: are we in a transformative political moment, and what would that mean? Even after a decade of debilitating partisanship, Rovian strategists and Netroots bloggers continue to exacerbate political polarization. Yet, with the likely nominations of John McCain and Barack Obama, observers of all political stripes have sensed the prospect of a political sea-change. Whether it is a government unified around a bold progressive majority, a resurgent and transmuted conservatism, or some kind of “post-partisanship,” the possibility of a new political era in America is very real. Nonetheless, the data show that partisan identification and ideological polarization are as prevalent as ever.

Longman attempted to unravel this knot by tracing the career of that unusual phrase, “post-partisan.” In the 1980s it described an effort to overhaul entitlements, in the 1990s it adopted a cool and detached air from political observers such as JFK, Jr., and in the 2000s it represented the desire of centrist politicians such as Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger to pursue innovative policy ideas. Now, post-partisanship may reflect a new approach to politics by the “Millenial” generation, who value respect and comity even as they overwhelmingly identify as either liberal or conservative.

Next, Cliff Zukin, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the Rutgers University, presented his paper, “The American Public and the Next Social Contract: Public Opinion and Political Culture in 2007.” He stressed the distinction between public attitudes on current policy debates and enduring values that lie at the core of the American character. These values serve as a kind of passive restraint and guiding structure for policy discussion, and they include a commitment to equality of opportunity, independence and self-reliance, and a wary acceptance of the idea that the government can play a positive role in individuals’ lives. In turn, these values shape public opinion in important issue areas: on education, they believe that it is a democratic entitlement; on social security, they are skeptical of its solvency and open to finding an acceptable working solution; on health care, they are willing to entertain broad overhauls to address costs and coverage; in their jobs, they are satisfied but anxious about basic economic insecurity. Zukin concluded his remarks with a broad caveat for framing the next social contract. Only in moments of crisis does a window of opportunity for sweeping policy change occur, and an unprecedented shift in economic concerns might point to such a moment.

In the subsequent panel, Mark Schmitt, Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Policy at Princeton University, and Susan Milligan, national political reporter for the Boston Globe, discussed the role of institutions on the next political era. Schmitt stressed that, while trends may point to a different political trajectory, it will not be a return to bipartisanship between liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Indeed, the last attempt at that kind of cooperation was the implosion of health care reform in 1993. Since then, the “great sorting out” has occurred, with Republicans to the left and Democrats to the right purged in 1994 and 2006, respectively. This development, and the recent Democratic turn in public opinion, may be a welcome change. Post-partisan sentiments may simply reflect “an opportunity for liberalism to engage with an honest version of conservatism.” The cooperation that could emerge from such a debate is of an unprecedented character: not simply reaching across the aisle to cherry pick like-minded senators, but taking seriously and working together with those who disagree.

Professor Zelizer expressed skepticism about any kind of sea-change in politics. First, he said that conservatism will remain entrenched in political institutions and lasting policy victories, even in the face of a possibly overwhelming electoral loss in 2008. Much the same as in the 1970s, when conservatives imagined that liberalism would simply vanish, it is a fantasy to think that conservative gains in media outlets, court appointments, and lowering tax rates will disappear. Second, polarization is unlikely to fade to the background, as it is fueled not only by public opinion, but also by key institutional features such as the committee system, the primary system, and the new 24-hour media cycle. Finally, any progressive or populist movement will face serious challenges: the Democratic party is no longer the party of the working class, it suffers from conflicting philosophies, and it may fall prey to impossibly high expectations.

Susan Milligan then argued that partisanship is less a matter of liberal and conservative ideology than it is a result of power struggles. Since 1994, the margin between legislative control and minority status has been slight, and Democrats and Republicans alike have not been inclined to throw any bones to the other side. Responding to these pitched battles, the public’s preference for candidates like Obama, McCain, and Huckabee shows that the electorate is taking the process back. “They are physically and emotionally exhausted from the red state/blue state divide,” and the growth of independent voters as a key plurality of voters supports this broad change in political attitudes.

Reid Cramer introduced the panel of David Gray, Maya MacGuineas, and Len Nichols, to explore what policies might be possible in a new political era. Cramer opened the discussion by outlining a number of challenges to basic economic security that assets policy might redress. Against the backdrop of increasing income volatility and rising health and energy costs, the burst of the housing bubble has eroded a key source of savings for Americans. In order for individuals to weather this and other economic storms, policymakers should look to the tradition of the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill and broaden asset ownership. This kind of inclusive savings policy can transcend partisan debates, by embracing the principles of opportunity from the left and ownership from the right. In the short term, sensible solutions such as automatic saving attract support across the political spectrum, and in the long term, big ideas like a universal 401(k) are promising goals for the next political era.

Next, David Gray spoke about the possibilities for a new political era to coalesce around smaller, more manageable issues that “fly under the radar.” These policy areas, such as spending on children and work/family balance, enjoy robust public support from Democrats and Republicans alike. A number of trends point to the promise of policy innovation on this front. Work and family balance has been an important issue on the presidential campaign trail, and it has seen significant progress as an issue at the state level. As military families and entrepreneurial families struggle to maintain balance, work and family policy is growing increasingly salient. Finally, workplace flexibility will allow the elderly to work comfortably later into life, which will shore up their economic security and provide an important component to addressing the long-term fiscal challenges of entitlements.

Maya MacGuineas then described the challenges that tax and fiscal policy face, as well as some promising strategies that might elevate them to the crucial role they will have to play in the coming political era. These issues may lack the freshness of other innovative policy ideas, and “the size of the government is a cleavage issue between the two parties.” Even worse, there is lingering resentment on deficit reduction, because politicians who sacrificed political capital to see a surplus emerge in the 1990s only to rapidly vanish “fear they will get burned again.” Partisan trends continue, and they breed reluctance to face hard policy choices, even while “easy grabs” such as AMT reform and the stimulus package enjoy bipartisan success. The general lesson to draw is that incrementalism fails, and fundamental reform is needed. There are several approaches that might see such reform through. One is a commission that would construct a comprehensive proposal “with enough moving pieces to build a coalition” that could last. Other ideas include redefining budget concepts in favor of fiscal responsibility and building automatic changes, or triggers, into the budget. Perhaps the most important component of reform is a “grand bargain” that would help those who lose out in any fiscal restructuring.

Then, Len Nichols discussed the question of why now is the crucial moment to move forward on perennial issues of cost, access, and quality in health care. First, the cost of doing nothing is growing to staggering proportions. Support for national health care declined in the early 1990s as the economy eased out of recession; now, the current recession only adds to a more fundamental anxiety caused by skyrocketing health care costs. Second, employers are increasingly unable to compete internationally while providing health benefits. Because they cannot push insurance costs into higher prices or lower wages, employer-based health care is giving way. Finally, broad system stress from emergency care costs establishes the linkages between cost, access, and quality with crystal clarity. We see the results of these salient trends on both sides of the presidential campaign, and recent bipartisan success in the form of the Bennett-Wyden bill should offer hope for coming reform. For such cross-partisan cooperation to prevail, the “new math” tells us that a working proposal must enjoy not only 60, but 70 senators who find it acceptable. To make inroads into both parties and to repair our broken health care system, reform must create effective insurance markets, subsidize those who would otherwise lack coverage, and focus on the twin principles of personal and shared responsibility. The inescapable linkages connecting all these issues show that a grand bargain, laying out the next social contract, is critical.

For the final panel, Mark Schmitt introduced David Frum, fellow at AEI and author of Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, and Jonathan Chait, senior editor at The New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, to discuss the new direction that the parties will take in the coming political era. Frum described Republican control that began to emerge in the 1990s as “the GOP cashing in on the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.” After a rare succession of elections failing to produce a clear majority for any candidate, George W. Bush sought in his Presidency to assemble a new coalition, turning the GOP into a lasting majority party. The events of September 11, 2001 disrupted this effort, and public opinion trends have begun to favor Democrats. The question remains how the Republican party will respond to this new era, and whether Democrats will overstretch in their victory in 2008.

Jonathan Chait then argued that the key source of this Democratic ascendance is “the disappearance of broadly shared prosperity” in the economy, propelled by the Bush tax cuts. Chait disputed that rising Democratic self-identification is a temporary fluctuation in partisanship, but rather a lasting ideological sea change. Yet, despite these favorable trends, a progressive agenda could encounter a number of obstacles in 2008, principally the filibuster in the senate. In order to meet these challenges, Democrats must develop institutions, such as nonprofits, to respond to ideas from the right. Furthermore, they must mobilize the public to counterbalance the influence of political inertia and self-interested insiders. He cited Barack Obama’s theory of change as one vision to accomplish this task. In response, David Frum argued that a President Obama, like Reagan and Clinton before him, would only be able to make this kind of direct appeal to the public once.

-David McNamee is a Program Associate for the Next Social Contract.


New America Foundation
1630 Connecticut Ave, NW 7th Floor
Washington, DC, 20009
See map: Google Maps


11:00 a.m. Public Opinion, the Next Social Contract, and the Next Political Era

  • Phil Longman
    Senior Fellow and Research Director of The Next Social Contract Initiative
    New America Foundation.

11:30 a.m. Political Institutions and Elections in the Next Political Era

  • Mark Schmitt
    Senior Fellow
    New America Foundation.
  • Julian Zelizer
    Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University
    Author, On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences
  • Susan Milligan
    Political Reporter
    The Boston Globe

12:15 p.m. What Policies Are Possible in the Next Political Era?

  • Len Nichols
    Director, Health Policy Program
    New America Foundation
  • Christine Ferguson
    Associate Research Professor of Health Policy, George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services
    Former Deputy Chief of Staff to Senator John Chafee (R-RI)
  • Maya MacGuineas
    President, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
    Director, Fiscal Policy Program, New America Foundation
  • Reid Cramer
    Research Director, Asset Building Program
    New America Foundation
  • David Gray
    Director, Workforce and Family Program
    New America Foundation

1:15 p.m. Political Parties in the Next Political Era

  • David Frum
    Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
    Author, Comeback Conservatism
  • Jonathan Chait
    The New Republic
    Author, The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics

Event Time and Location

Friday, February 29, 2008 - 11:00am - 2:00pm