Matthew Yglesias, Matt Stoller, and myself have all pointed out a rarely noticed, elitist aspect of the constant calls for greater bipartisanship by the likes of David Broder and many other pundits. Here is Matthew Yglesias summarizing the argument:
Pushing things further, though, I would make the case that polarization is a good thing. Polarization means you know, as a citizen, how to translate political activity -- voting, volunteering, donating -- into policy results. If every Democrat is to the left of every Republican on some issue, then if you want to move the status quo to the left you support Democratic candidates but if you want to move it to the right you support Republicans. Under conditions where there's very little polarization, like the congressional politics of civil rights in the 1950s, you get chaos. Perhaps a certain Democratic incumbent is slightly better on civil rights than his Republican challenger. But the Republican ranking member on some key committee may well be better on civil rights than is the Democratic incumbent. Thus it's possible that backing the incumbent is good for civil rights unless beating the incumbent would cause the balance of power to shift and bring the Republican ranking member into the majority. What's a voter to do? Who knows?
Weak parties make the life of a Washington power broker more interesting. Basically, there's more power brokering to do. There are more horses to trade. There's more dealing to wheel. Politics becomes a fascinating game of three dimensional chess. Polarization is boring. Two parties lay out there programs, people vote, and depending on the election outcomes and the veto points in the system, legislation results. But polarization is simpler for voters. It connects actions to results. And it brings about higher levels of participation as a result.
Simply put, polarization creates transparency in the impacts of voting, while bi-partisanship creates more obscurity. When you know what Democrats stand for, then you know what you get when you vote for Democrats. When you know what Republicans stand for, then you know what you get when you vote for Republicans. When it isn't clear what they stand for, or when there is wide variance among individual Democrats and individual Republicans, then the process becomes far more obscure for everyone who isn't a Washington, D.C. insider.
I bring this argument up to place context around a new claim I want to make: there is also a distinct element of elitism among many non-partisan politics, including many of the tax-exempt 501c(3) and 501c(4) organizations that serve as the institutional framework for non-partisan politics. While some such organizations are based on small donations (PIRG), mass membership (Sierra Clud), or communicate with the public and / or grassroots on a regular basis, many are hermetically sealed from everyone except elites. The organizations I have in mind are funded almost entirely by large donations from people with a net worth of seven figures or more, communicate and direct their activities only at political and media elites, and are staffed by professional political elites who are either good at talking working the latter or raising money from the former. It is a hermetically sealed elite circle, with no need to ever come into contact with the grassroots. In such an environment, it stands to reason that even the progressive organizations that operate in such an elite political ecosystem will ultimately engage in a type of politics that is only responsible to the concerns of the elite.
This is a bit abstract, since I have not identified any specific organizations that operate in such a manner, but bear with me. Compare this elite ecosystem to electoral campaigns for federal office, which are often decried as being solely about money or considered disgusting because they raise so much money for their campaign. While Clinton, Obama and McCain have combined to raise about $450 million so far in 2007-2008, all of their donors are disclosed and huge percentages of it are now coming from small donors. In fact, in February, about 80% of their fundraising came from small, online donors, now that most of their larger contributors have maxed out. In order to do this, they all had to make direct appeals to grassroots activists, and then publicly disclose who those activists were. By contrast, some c3s and c4s never have to make an appeal to the grassroots at all, and never have to disclose their donors. Now, you tell me: which situation is more of an example of organizations who are only accountable toelite donors, and which situation is more democratic? The answer is obvious, and I think it throws into question exactly where in politics is money a problem.
Or, consider life as a blogger. In order to make ends meet, we full-time bloggers need to sell advertising, hold fundraisers, and pick up second jobs on the side. In order to sell advertising, you need a decent amount of readers, and in order to pull that off without any advertising budget of your own you need to appeal to grassroots, political junkies who can't get enough of politics. In order to hold fundraisers, you need to have a few hundred highly dedicated fans who not only read your blog, but who are willing to support it financially. And, even if you can manage this, then still every article you write, every job you take, every advertisement that appears on your site, and every gift you accept is heavily scrutinized for potential biases, conflicts of interests, or other potential disservices to the cause. Consider, for example, that after a few emails, I felt it was necessary to post an explanation for why I am in Israel right now, even though someone else is picking up the tab. The level of interaction with and direct accountability to the grassroots that bloggers face is truly extreme.
However, far from being a negative, the level of accountability that bloggers have to the grassroots is, I think, on balance a huge net positive. If all political organizations, including c3s and c4s had anywhere close to this level of accountability to the grassroots, then our political system would change dramatically. Right now, it is mainly responsive to elites, because in general it just doesn't have to deal with the grassroots. Maybe this is all not only very abstract, since I don't name any names, and perhaps this is all a little goo goo (good government) idealist of me, but if you have to go through a different group of people in order to get anything done, and if you interact with a different group of people in your political life, then you will end up engaging in a different type of politics with different sorts of outcomes. How different it would be, I have no idea. However, right now our political system is pretty much only responsive to elites, and the growing dominance of c3s and c4s that are hermetically sealed within an elite political, financial and media ecosystem is one of the reasons for this.