"Whatever happens will be for the worse. Therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible."
This comically unvarnished conservative credo from Lord Salisbury, a formidable British prime minister of the late 19th century, has never really described American conservatism, which on the whole has always welcomed change, even rapid change, so long as it's driven by private motives and energies.
But America's complicated system of government — its tangled array of checks and balances, its divisions of authority, its endless avenues for appeal — has from the start made it easy for politically inspired change to not happen, especially not quickly.
All this is called to mind by a recent news analysis on the status of President Joe Biden's ambitious policy agenda.
"Until recently," the report declared, "the act of governing seemed to happen at the speed of presidential tweets. But now President Joe Biden is settling in for what appears will be a long, summer slog of legislating."
It seems "Congress is hunkered down … trying to draft Biden's big infrastructure ideas into bills that could actually be signed into law."
The story went on to predict that "it's going to take a while" to determine what portion of Biden's $6 trillion worth of big ideas on infrastructure (and whatnot) can actually pass.
Last week Biden and a bipartisan group of senators preeningly touted a "deal" on a piece of the president's plan, while other top Democrats in Congress warned that unless they are assured of a more lavish companion bill that will be forced down the GOP's throat "there ain't going to be a bipartisan bill," in the words of tough-talking San Francisco socialite (and House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi.
Meanwhile other transformative visions of woke progressives, like their sweeping elections bill blocked in the Senate last week, appear to be moving just as slowly and uncertainly.
Many Democrats are anxious that Biden "is wasting precious time negotiating with Republicans," according to the reports. But Biden "seems to like the laborious art of legislating."
The old war horse has certainly been slogging through the American way of governing long enough to be unsurprised by its halting pace. He may also be enough of a master at the central talent of a lawmaker — counting votes — to see what his party's impatient militants apparently don't.
Biden likely sees clearly that Democrats control both houses of Congress, and even the White House, by virtue of flimsy, potentially fleeting majorities. Pushing a too-uncompromising agenda could backfire.
In all this the Democrats today are in the same perilous position that has confronted every governing majority for 30 years. The most consequential political characteristic of our era is basic, obvious and easily underrated.
Yes, Americans are deeply, passionately, angrily divided today, but they are also, more simply, closely divided — more closely divided, in fact, over a longer stretch of time, than they've been since the Civil War, when something like today's major parties appeared.
Many of the anxious progressives who want Biden to push further and faster insist that it is America's old-fashioned, anti-majoritarian institutions that block the bold reform they say the people want. They long at least to sweep aside the Senate filibuster and "pack" the Supreme Court, adding enough new liberal members to topple the GOP-appointed majority there.
But what if America's long-slog system, far from frustrating the will of "the people," is instead quite precisely expressing the population's current wishes — or anyhow its indecision?
Fact is, for decades American voters have refused to give either party the kind of large and lasting majorities in Congress needed to enact major transformative legislation.
America's checks and balances make it nearly impossible for small or fleeting majorities — the only kind our era has produced — to impose major change on society. That's not a flaw of America's constitutional order, but one of its virtues.
Keep in mind that in the past, the American electorate did make up its mind politically for considerable stretches of years. And as a result, in today's argot, "things got done."
Consider: Today the Democrats hold a 222-213 majority in the House of Representatives. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Democrats were passing big-idea legislation like Medicare, civil rights and the war-on-poverty programs, their House majority never fell below 243, and their advantage peaked at 295-140 in 1965.
Democrats "control" the Senate today on a 50-50 split, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. In 1965, Democrats held 68 Senate seats. They averaged 61.3 for two full decades throughout the '60s and '70s.
And Democratic dominance in that Great Society era was shaky compared with the New Deal years of the 1930s. Democrats controlled the House with well over 300 seats for six straight years after Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency, and in 1937 he was backed by a 333-89 Democratic juggernaut in the House and a 76-16 stranglehold in the Senate.
Yet 1937 was the year FDR tried to "pack the court" and couldn't get Congress to go along.
Republicans' golden age of dominance, meanwhile, had lasted three quarters of a century. Between the party's birth in 1856 and FDR's landslide in 1932, the GOP controlled the House during 62 of 76 years, while holding the Senate and the White House for 52 years. The Democratic dynasty that followed between 1932 and 1994 held the House for 58 of 62 years and the Senate for 52 years.
In their long heydays, both parties ruled the Senate with more than 60% of the seats more than a third of the time. Neither party has done that for even a single session since Jimmy Carter was president. And the Republicans' recent advantage in simple control of Congress — a majority in the House for 20 of the last 28 years and in the Senate for 16 years — has been modest compared with previous eras.
Presidential politics has always been a more competitive, seesaw affair. But in 30 elections between 1900 and last year, 13 presidential winners enjoyed double-digit percentage margins in the popular vote. Not a single one of those landslides came in the last nine elections. The most recent was Ronald Reagan's in 1984.
One riddle in all this is why our unprecedented era of closely competitive politics hasn't produced, along with gridlock, a more moderate political tone — of the kind one hears from centrist candidates in "swing" congressional and legislative districts.
One answer may be that in earlier eras of extended electoral dominance by one party or the other, compromise and comity produced better results for minority parties and factions than did total political war.
But when the whole country is a swing district, when every national election is a toss-up, the perpetually high stakes may enflame ideological passions and inspire constant go-for-broke rhetoric.
Anyway, our era's inaction speaks louder than its words, or at least more eloquently expresses the public's divided mind. Don't be surprised if less actually happens during Biden's "long slog" than you'd expect from all its sound and fury.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.