Bipartisanship Deconstructed

Our political culture of reverence for “bipartisanship” has become like a cargo cult. Few have really caught on to the reality that the rituals aren’t working, let alone questioned their origins. Many simply carry on apparently convinced that going through the motions and chanting the magic phrases—”find common ground,” “reach across the aisle,” “bipartisan“—must eventually revive the politics of decades ago.

If one can manage even basic pattern recognition, it’s easy enough to dismiss this. Fake radios don’t work, the Ghost Dance didn’t work, repeating clichés with no relevance to contemporary politics won’t work. But ignorant superstition is not a convincing complete explanation, here, and it’s worth examining how America became so attached to this concept in the first place.

Much reference to “bipartisanship” seems like a shorthand. It’s an overused gesture toward cooperation and reasonableness, employed out of habit. Or it’s an all-purpose endorsement of policy, in place of details which few will follow.

But a deeper reflection on bipartisanship reveals an important part of governing and America’s social contract itself, for well over a century.

Bipartisanship is fundamentally how America settled political disputes for generations. It isn’t the only way to resolve policy questions, and hasn’t always produced good solutions. But it was a convenient mechanism within stable two-party politics. The two major parties’ effective duopoly since the Civil War meant that support within both could effectively end arguments over a particular policy.

This system was neither inevitable nor guaranteed to work. Contemporary politics demonstrate that. Its function, for so long, offered important things to participants within the system.

Bipartisan compromise offered elites security, against backlash from policy initiatives. Involving some significant portion of the opposition party in an initiative prevented, or at least limited, a subsequent revenge campaign.

Bipartisan agreement also offered reassurance to low-engagement citizens—i.e. most people—that their low level of engagement was safe. A bipartisan policy might be good or bad, but typically isn’t extremely awful. Set against the demands of activism, accepting this bargain offered real personal value.

The system also benefited society as a whole, by steering politics toward settlement, instead of uncertainty and seesaw battles over the same controversies. But the key to bipartisanship’s function, and its breakdown, was the bargain between governing elites and consenting citizens. The bipartisan system was political superstructure for America’s social contract. Dissatisfaction with that structure has left our society unstable.

In a direct sense, the Republican Party cancelled national bipartisanship. Over a dozen years, Republicans have refused to bargain with Democrats under every partisan configuration possible. From running against their own Romneycare policy, once Barack Obama adopted it, to stalling relief legislation last fall even when Democrats were eager to vote money for a Republican president to hand out, the Republican Party has led the rending of bipartisanship.

The result is nonetheless everyone’s problem, Democrats included. Democrats appear to be waiting for either a Republican reversal, or a sweeping vote of confidence for themselves. Dissatisfied voters appear to be waiting for reason to trust anyone more than a smidge. Popular policies alone don’t seem to be enough; as a progressive I believe bold reforms are necessary and justified, but if firm commitment alone could satisfy voters, progressive candidates should have swept all before them by this point.

For now, I certainly encourage the current Democratic majorities to pursue reform anyway, not because it’s guaranteed to succeed but because it isn’t yet proven to fail. Eight years of low-drama presidential decency failed to persuade voters to deliver Democratic supermajorities. Four years of shocking events failed to restore the opposition party’s interest in bipartisanship. “Wait and see a while longer” seems less like optimism than simply quitting. With one party on strike, America can’t afford two.

Bipartisanship was never a virtue in and of itself, after all. Its function and dysfunction are worth in-depth study, if some new stable pact is to replace it, some day. In the meantime it’s critical to recognize that it was ultimately a comprehensible system, not magic. Bipartisanship didn’t live or die by magic, and it won’t magically reappear.

Political elites may be discomfited and fearful in the absence of bipartisanship, but they should not simply wait and pray for solutions rather than attempt to implement some.

[Featured image: 2010 cartoon by Jeff Darcy]

3 Thoughts on “Bipartisanship Deconstructed

  1. You’re not wrong, but the bipartisianship cargo cult is hardly unique. How many aspects of American politics — particularly at the federal level — are based on “well, this is how we’ve always done it” regardless of whether or not it still works? For that matter, how many aspects of the news? Or business? Or academia? Our entire education system is *still* completely structured around industrial era assumptions and norms.

    Despite being seemingly endlessly adaptable, humans, particularly as a collective, are horrible with change. People *can* change, but only when they absolutely NEED to do so. If there’s any semblance of “how it used to be” in place, they will absolutely hide behind and believe in the sanctity of that façade until there is nothing left but smoldering remains.

  2. Well yeah I realize that also. I encountered and read this story years and years and years ago:

    I don’t know whether or not all the details are entirely accurate. But the underlying concept is true, as I have recognized at greater and greater depth over the years since.

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