Bipartisanship: Comity vs. Consensus
I think the error most people make on this subject is being confused about what voters are really tired of. They aren’t tired of partisanship, they’re tired of bickering. And who isn’t? But when push comes to shove, most of those folks who say they’re tired of bickering would rather bicker than cave in on the issues that are important to them. Bipartisanship goes down the drain pretty quickly when abortion or trade or immigration or any other hot button issue actually gets put on the table.
I’d like to see a muting of the “team sports” mentality that infests American politics, whereby too many people are for or against things solely based on the impact it has on their political party. A recognition that most people across the the aisle are decent folks who want what’s best for the country but simply have different priorities would be nice.
But the idea that we should simply adopt a politics of consensus, abandoning the differences in ideals which led to the creation of parties in the first place, is silly, perhaps even dangerous.
When the 9/11 attacks happened, I was in my last year teaching at Troy State. I told my students, very early, that the “national consensus” and “end to conflict” that were being touted by party leaders, media folks, and country music singers* would quickly dissipate. That, while the terrorists reminded us of our common interests and briefly united us in a need to respond to the terrible outrage, we would quickly have to figure out how to respond, at which point debate would again become necessary.
I had no idea, of course, of the extent to which I would be proven right. But any student of politics should have been able to look past the emotions of the moment and understood that.
As I’ve noted many times, American politics is rather odd. Compared to our European counterparts, our two major parties are remarkably similar in ideology. There’s a bipartisan consensus (not shared by each individual, of course, but by the leadership) that we should have a massive military budget, a small-by-European-standards welfare state, have more-or-less free global trade, have a slightly progressive tax system, and so on and so forth. The debate, really, is at the margins. Or, as George Will often put it, “a football game played between the 40 yard lines.”
At the same time, we’ve ratcheted up the rhetoric to give the impression that a change in parties would lead to the destruction of the Republic itself. Why, John Kerry would have simply surrendered to the Islamists while nationalizing all the corporations whereas George Bush and Dick Cheney would complete their evil agenda to reinstitute slavery, disenfranchise women, and kill all the old people.
And, of course, both sides believe that the media is against them and that, when they lose, it’s because they’re too gosh darned nice whereas the other side fights dirty.
Campaigns are useful in helping clarify our differences and highlight policy choices. To a large extent, they accomplish that. But the nature of modern campaigning puts a huge emphasis on “the politics of personal destruction” and nasty sound bytes.
It’s hard to see this changing any time soon. Certainly, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the campaign will be at least as nasty as any in recent memory. And goodness knows what sort of rhetoric would be used against a Mike Huckabee or Rudy Giuliani. Maybe a John McCain – Barack Obama contest would be more civil, but I rather doubt it.
*I’m thinking of the various tribute songs that came out, notably Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You?” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s rewrite of “A Country Boy Can Survive,” with its couplet,
There’s no more Yankees and Rebels this time
But one united people that stand behind
As sweet and heartfelt as the sentiment was, it couldn’t last. Nor should it have.
Image credit: Wrongmont via Google.