Why politics needs more conflict, not less

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Here’s a counterintuitive thought: maybe Congress in particular, and politics in general, has too little conflict, not too much.

That’s James Wallner’s argument, and it’s more persuasive than you might think. Wallner is a political scientist who became a top Republican Senate aide, working as legislative director for Senators Jeff Sessions and Pat Toomey, as well as executive director of the Senate Steering Committee under Toomey and Lee. He’s now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, and the author of “The Death of Deliberation: Partisanship and Polarization in the United States Senate.”

Wallner is immersed in congressional history and procedure, and one of his conclusions after years of both study and experience is that the leadership in both parties are using the rules to stymie disagreement and suppress chaos — and well-intentioned though this might be, it’s making everything worse. Congress, Wallner believes, is an institution designed to surface conflict so that positions can be made clear, compromises can be tested, and a way forward can be found. That’s not happening now, and the results are disastrous.

The Republican Party is particularly bad on this score, he says. “They pretend like they all agree on everything...But if you never deal with your problems, what do you think happens? A break-up! And that's literally what you're seeing right now.”

The first few times I hard Wallner’s arguments, I was skeptical. In some ways, I’m still skeptical, as you’ll hear in this conversation. But I’m also convinced he’s onto something important.

Books:

The Professor's House by Willa Cather

Democracy and Leadership by Irving Babbitt

Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison

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