Bipartisanship: Comity vs. Consensus

Bipartisanship: Comity vs. Consensus Kevin Drum reacts with relief to news that “there was precisely zero detectable enthusiasm for a Bloomberg bid” in a meeting yesterday to find a way out of the current partisan climate.

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.

Quite right.

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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. teqjack says:

    Consensus is not necessarily a good thing, albeit perhaps a good indicator. LIke BMI, it must be interpreted (most professional athletes have a BMI that puts them past “overweight” into “obese” if not “morbidly obese” – which is why it is an indicator, not an absolute diagnosis).

    “Consensus” is a fancy way of saying “majority opinion”. Not only may opinion be based upon false premise, but it has always been regarded with some suspicion (“the tyrany of the masses”). In the US, during the forming decades it was widely debated, and some attempts at safeguards (eg the Electoral College and the composition of the Senate vs that of the House) were adopted.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    “Consensus” is a fancy way of saying “majority opinion”.

    No, it isn’t. You might want to check your dictionary. Majority is just one-half plus one. Consensus means something quite a bit different.

    James, I think that the national consensus is a bit different than the one you’ve outlined. Our problem right now is that a key portion of the national consensus has evaporated, namely the belief in the goodwill (or, minimally, the tolerability) of political opponents. That goes beyond simple partisanship or bickering. How can you compromise with ultimate evil? And without compromise there is no liberal democracy.

  3. just me says:

    I think this line says it all.

    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.

    I don’t mind people holding strongly held positions on various issues.

    I also recognize that there isn’t always going to be a compromise, and sometimes a compromise ends up in a bill that everyone hates rather than everyone likes (the medicaid drug bill is a great example, and NCLB is another-in both cases everyone compromised to the point that the end results weren’t anything either party wanted-and much of the criticism rightfully earned).

    What I am tired of is the demonization of people from one party by people in the other party. I am tired of the personal attacks.

    I would like to see a little more respect for the humanity of the members of the other party-and an understanding that disagreement on positions doesn’t equate to some failing-it is simply a difference of opinion and/or worldview.

  4. Polimom says:

    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.

    That’s certainly part of it, at least from my point of view. But isn’t that the very essence of “partisanship”? Support of (or objection to) an issue or person based merely upon which party they’re in? It’s that very partisanship, I think, that has given rise to the confusion around “mandates”.

    Many voters these days look at the issues in a more individual manner, and they vote based on who aligns on most of them. Personally, I don’t know anyone who agrees with a party platform across the board, regardless of Dem or Rep.

    Thus, I see a disconnect between voters (as in… ordinary people), and partisans (aka “the base”). I think voters are far more aware that when it comes to actual governance, the ideological distinctions have minimal impact on daily lives. And so we are — or at least I am – really really tired of it.

  5. Christopher says:

    Ploimom,

    “the ideological distinctions have minimal impact on daily lives”? Huh???

    Daily Lives: Bush cut taxes (dems were against) and thereby we recovered from the recession Clinton left and that the attacks of 9/11 exasperated.

    Daily Lives: Everyone said social security was the “third rail” but Bush tackled it and got NO help from the dems whatsoever. He offered bi-partisanship solutions but they just let him hang in the wind.

    Daily Lives: Republicans over and over again have tried to pass a balanced budget amendment and dems won’t have it.

    Daily Lives: Bush has waged war on the terrorists, killing them everyday. But as soon as things got messy, dems utterly abandoned him. Yet despite the rhetoric of the democrat led congress, they cowardly refuses to end it.

    Republicans are the ones who have impact on our daily lives. To dems it’s all just a re-election game. Nothing else.

  6. Polimom says:

    Christopher,

    In the interests of comity, I’m going to assume you’re talking about the war in Iraq with your reference to killing terrorists, so that I can also agree that there was an ideological root to its launch. However, I think that ideology was not fully embraced by the party from which it launched, and has been fairly thoroughly rejected. What we’re left with now, re: Iraq, is a real doozy of a partisan food-fight.

    Beyond that temporary and unexpected departure, though — what you’ve outlined above are some lovely examples of partisanship.

    As James said in his post, there are common, relatively stable fundamentals. Both parties tax. Both parties support at least a marginal social net. Both parties acknowledge and support the military. etc etc The hows are a matter a degree and applicability, but at the end of the day, things rarely change much.

    One big reason for that, of course, is that our system of government is set up to prevent radical swings in one direction or another. It works pretty well, generally — and it would still be effective without the snarling and barking.

  7. Tlaloc says:

    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.

    It’s hard to take that position when one side, for example, wants to torture helpless prisoners. In fact not only wants it, but gleefully boasts of wanting it, such that their presidential candidates compete to see who can capture the coveted “biggest torturer” mantle.

    They may want what is best for the country but that (sizable) branch of the GOP can not be construed as “decent people.” They are quite simply monsters, and they should be confronted with that fact every day.

  8. Christopher says:

    Polimom,

    REPUBLICANS are the party of defense. Dems have always been weak in that regard. And who says that the ideology of going to war “has been fairly thoroughly rejected”? Most Americans hate the war and us being there because Americans are getting killed. But most believe in why we are there. Prez Bush got re-elected because of the war, not in spite of it. Though Americans hate it, they know it is important to finish what was started.

    Dems don’t like the war only because they think they can win elections because of their opposition. That’s not partisan bickering-that’s just plain sick.

  9. just me says:

    It’s hard to take that position when one side, for example, wants to torture helpless prisoners. In fact not only wants it, but gleefully boasts of wanting it, such that their presidential candidates compete to see who can capture the coveted “biggest torturer” mantle.

    But is this really true? It is this kind of generalization that is the problem. And I would like you to provide proof that all the GOP candidates are competing for “biggest torturer” because I can think off hand of at least two candidates who aren’t.

  10. Grewgills says:

    And I would like you to provide proof that all the GOP candidates are competing for “biggest torturer” because I can think off hand of at least two candidates who aren’t.

    Only two are actively competing to be the torturer in chief, one serious R contender is actively against, most of the others just supported whatever Bush wanted on that score, and then there is Paul (was he your second?).
    There were rather disturbingly enthusiastic responses from the debate attendees when Mr. 911 and Double Guantanamo were competing to be the most pro torture candidate. Hopefully it was just a bit too much of a debate testosterone surge coupled with coming down from watching a 24 marathon.

  11. Christopher says:

    Grewgills,

    You are one of the sick ones. Maybe you should watch the 911 videos of people deciding if they should burn alive in a jet fueled fire or jump 100 stories to their deaths. Or of how the terrorists you want to use kid gloves on sawed off a conscious American’s head with a small saw. Or visit a veteran’s ward and see the injuries they have inflicted on your and my American soldiers.

    People like you are hardly worth saving.

  12. Steve says:

    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 I think it is more than just different priorities, it is a different world view. A person’s world view dictates, influences their priorities. If your world view says a person is responsible for their own actions/decisions and therefore their circumstances then your priorities are to change the person’s actions/decisions and especially the mind set that led to the decision. If your world view says a person’s actions/decisions are due to his environment and therefore he is not responsible for those actions, i.e he is a victim, then your priorities are to change the environment and conclude that that will change his actions. If he doesn’t change his actions then the environment wasn’t changed enough.

    I can think of several issues that demonstrate this world view/priorities structure.
    1. Social Security: Is the amount of money a person has when they retire a result of their spending/saving decisions during their working years or are they victims of big business not paying them enough during those years or not providing a decent retirement package?
    2. Criminal system: Should a person convicted of a crime pay some penalty for that decision? Should they lose their freedom for a period of time, pay monetary retribution, pay society back with work time or pay the ultimate price of a life for a life? Or is the person who is convicted of a crime a victim of their environment and not responsible for their actions? Society should change the environment which would change the decisions of the individual. Payment for the crime will not change the person.
    3. Obesity: Is the obesity of a person a result of his eating/exercise decisions? If he changes those decisions will he change his obesity and therefore the social and health results? Or is his obesity a result of the fat content of the fast food establishment he frequents. They want him to keep coming back so they load up the food with better tasting fat.

    They may be good people on the other side of the aisle but they see things differently and therefore make different decisions regarding taxes, defense, The Arts, Heath care, Social Security, etc. Once they see the world as I do they will make the right decisions. 🙂

  13. Tlaloc says:

    But is this really true? It is this kind of generalization that is the problem. And I would like you to provide proof that all the GOP candidates are competing for “biggest torturer” because I can think off hand of at least two candidates who aren’t.

    Grewgills answered this well but I wanted to make a point here. I am not saying that ALL the republican nominees are competing to be the “torturing-est.” McCain has been pretty anti-torture. So has Paul.

    But for god’s sake think about what that means!

    The candidates for president are the most scrutinized people in the world. And on the republican side, among the first tier, you have only one who rejects torture. ONLY ONE. You have another two who actively encourage it and want to be seen as the ones most willing to torture helpless prisoners.

    My god. I knew america was going to freak out and over react to 9/11 when it happened, but I never imagined that pro-torture would be a mainstream position in the GOP.

    In answer to your first question, yes, it is really true. Many of the techniques used in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo (and most likely all the secret prisons run by the CIA, where no red cross visits are allowed) were used to great effect in the torture chambers of the USSR Gulag system. In fact one of the CIA’s secret prisons turned out to be a former easter european gulag. Ah the terrible symmetry.

    A great many on the right have dehumanized the middle east in general and Muslims in specific. And the result is that people joke about turning mecca into glass, they applaud slogans about inflicting torture, and they vote for those who commit war crimes.

  14. Tlaloc says:

    People like you are hardly worth saving.

    Now does anyone really believe it is a long distance in the mind of someone like “Christopher” from “you are hardly worth saving” to “You should be arrested and tortured”?

    I don’t. Christopher, here, is the answer to the inevitable “could it happen here” questions about Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.

  15. C.Wagener says:

    Recall if you will, that when the actual decision making regarding torture/aggressive interrogation took place the Dems involved raised no objections. Only when time had past since 9/11 did they make the political calculation that being against it was advantageous.

    Do the following thought experiment. If you thought water boarding 3 known mass murderers for a combined total of 2 minutes would save 100 innocent humans would you sanction it?

  16. Tlaloc says:

    Recall if you will, that when the actual decision making regarding torture/aggressive interrogation took place the Dems involved raised no objections.

    Only if you mean the dems in congress because I know for a fact that a great many democrats opposed it.

    Do the following thought experiment. If you thought water boarding 3 known mass murderers for a combined total of 2 minutes would save 100 innocent humans would you sanction it?

    What if waterboarding 3 innocent children would save 100 people? Torture is wrong. Among the many reasons why that is the case is because sooner or later it gets used more in line with my scenario than yours. That is the history of torture.

  17. C.Wagener says:

    You didn’t answer the question.

    At any rate you make an assertion about torture unfounded in the context of the U.S. I will agree that torture is primarily used to save the lives of dictators. But by the current (circa 2005) definition of torture, the U.S. has used it many times, yet we have never slipped down that slope. Again, recall if you will water boarding was (and is still) legal during the Clinton administration. Democrats couldn’t have cared less.

    Enough about theoreticals though – how many kids should go up in flames so that the President and Attorney General look tough? A: 18, plus 35 adults. Did Reno get fired? Did the Dems even care? A: No.

    If your ethics are conditional on who is in the White House you have none.

  18. Tlaloc says:

    You didn’t answer the question.

    No I really did. Torture is wrong. See I just answered it again.

    At any rate you make an assertion about torture unfounded in the context of the U.S. I will agree that torture is primarily used to save the lives of dictators. But by the current (circa 2005) definition of torture, the U.S. has used it many times, yet we have never slipped down that slope.

    Oh but we have slipped down exactly that slope. We have in our current conflict tortured people to death. We have tortured an american citizen who was detained without trial. We have doubtless (based on the statistics of the matter)tortured innocents, some of which are certainly children. You fool yourself when you pretend otherwise.

    Again, recall if you will water boarding was (and is still) legal during the Clinton administration. Democrats couldn’t have cared less.

    Prior to the current administration the rules that CIA and military interrogators operated under precluded waterboarding.

    Enough about theoreticals though – how many kids should go up in flames so that the President and Attorney General look tough? A: 18, plus 35 adults. Did Reno get fired? Did the Dems even care? A: No.

    And I have defended the waco thing so very many times…(sarcasm)

    Seriously is this your best defense? “Quick look at what Clinton did!”

    If your ethics are conditional on who is in the White House you have none.

    I find it almost painful that you don’t get the irony of saying that after trying to justify Bush’s actions by saying Clinton did the same.

  19. Christopher says:

    The US has tortured people to death? Tlaloc you do indeed live on a different planet. And what children are you talking about? Stop just reading your liberal propaganda and listening to Air America. Children have not been tortured and I cannot think of an instance where some kid would have such knowledge that we would need to torture him to save lives. WHAT A WACKY PLAENT YOU LIVE ON!

    You liberals are something else! Besides being wimps and cowards, you spew lies and deception. Tell me something, WHY DO YOU LIBERALS HATE AMERICA SO MUCH?!?

  20. Tlaloc says:

    The US has tortured people to death? Tlaloc you do indeed live on a different planet.

    I live on a planet where the US tortured Manadel al-Jamadi to death. Feel free to read about it, Christopher:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manadel_al-Jamadi

    You liberals are something else! Besides being wimps and cowards, you spew lies and deception. Tell me something, WHY DO YOU LIBERALS HATE AMERICA SO MUCH?!?

    Well now that you’ve had time to read the above link and discover you were wrong, do you hate america or are you just sickened by some of her actions?

  21. Christopher says:

    First of all, no one knows how Manadel al-Jamadi exactly died (btw, good job quoting liberal sources lol!), and no one was ever prosocuted for having anything whatsoever to do with his death. Why are you so quick to heap blame upon the defenders of your freedom and protectors of your safety? On your fellow Americans over a terrorist!

    Manadel al-Jamadi was responsible for the bombing of Red Cross offices in Baghdad that killed 12 red cross volunteers whose only crime was administering to people in need. INNOCENTS!

    Information obtained from Manadel al-Jamadi may well have saved innocent lives. But oh no! Since his next massacre never occured, we can’t count it as something beneficial in your liberal world.

    Hey! That guy in the news that just threw his kids off the bridge to their deaths-let’s set him free! Saddam Hussain, oh WAA WAA why didnt we let him come to America and start a new life and give him a house! And maybe we shoulda gone easier on Hitler and not invade his precious Europe that he so wanted to take over.

    You liberals are SICK!

  22. Tlaloc says:

    So what you are saying is that even when given a direct link to the information you won’t bother to read it.

    Alrighty then, since you prefer to be ignorant there is nothing I can do to help you.

  23. Christopher says:

    So what you are saying is that even when given a chance to gain direct information to save innocent lives, you still wouldn’t bother to use it.

    Alrighty then, since you prefer to let the terrorists win, there is nothing I can do to help you.