What Ever Happened To Bipartisanship?
If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that there’s a shameful lack of cooperation in Washington right now. Sure, Democrats and Republicans have some disagreements, but there’s no reason they can’t come together to work for the betterment of the country, right? Since Mitch ‘I Broke America’ McConnell first decided on a policy of total and absolute obstruction of President Obama’s agenda in 2009, the “gridlock in Washington!” has become almost a cliche, taken for granted by everyone, a subject of jokes and gentle admonishments. “Hyper-partisanship” is talked about as if it in itself is the problem, with stubborn politicians refusing to cross the aisle out of nothing but irrational prejudice. Anyways, as well all know, politicians are really all the same, amirite?
A few months so ago, during the height of the Obamacare repeal debate, Josh Marshall of Talking Point Memo excellently illustrated the failure of this trope when it came to health care policy, noting that “Pretending that both parties just have very different approaches to solving a commonly agreed upon problem is really just a lie. It’s not true. One side is looking for ways to increase the number of people who have real health insurance and thus reasonable access to health care and the other is trying to get the government out of the health care provision business with the inevitable result that the opposite will be the case. If you’re not clear on this fundamentally point, the whole thing does get really confusing.” Consistently, the media presented the debate over health care as two groups refusing to cooperate out of partisanship. This is true, in the narrowest sense, but the reason there was such high partisanship was because the two parties fundamentally disagreed on how health care should work. And this isn’t just true on healthcare, but on virtually every issue of discussion.
I was thinking about this, and the consistent failure to understand this of those paid millions of dollars a year specifically to understand politics, and I had a realization. American pundits understand politics. But they don’t understand the right kind of politics. The typical American political paradigm is one in which all major parties accept the parameters of the debate and disagree only on the details. Everyone of any importance in the USA is supposed to accept the general constructs of Liberal Democracy, Free Market Capitalism, and Racial Equality. This may have been true once. It is no longer. The political system right now in America is one much more akin to European politics in the mid to late 19th century.
Let’s look at France. Throughout almost the entirely of the 1800s, the great French political divides were not along the lines of conservative/liberal or big government/small government but between Republicans and Royalists. It was a fundamental divide over the nature of what the nation was, and it was not one resolved until virtually the end of the century. Contrary to popular perceptions of Napoleon putting an end to the Revolution, monarchical governments were overthrown in 1830, 1848, and 1870. And a Royalist majority was elected in France as late as 1871. This was an open debate for decades, and it dominated most aspects of French politics.
Another example is Imperial Germany. The German Empire had more of a societal consensus than France, but even so, the avowedly-Marxist Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands was the largest party in the Reichstag by 1912, and would seize control of the state in a virtual coup d’etat in 1918. And the Catholic Zentrumspartei was theoretically Conservative, but was forged out of fierce Catholic opposition to the attempts by Chancellor Bismarck to impose Protestantism on the country by governmental fiat.
There’s also Spain. The Kingdom of Spain suffered from chronic political chaos throughout the 19th century, held in check from 1876 onward by a flimsy constitutional arrangement designed to keep the radicals out of power. In 1930, the republican parties won a massive victory in a series of municipal elections. Two days later, King Alfonso XIII fled the country and the Republic of Spain was declared.
This is the framework we need to be using to look at American politics right now.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine a country far foreign, and in the grips of a political crisis. The nation is riven in two between two political factions, and harsh rhetoric and even violence increasing at a disturbing rate.
One one side we have the Constitutionalists. While theoretically a center-left coalition, the Constitutionalists tend to play a conservative role in the national politics, trying to protect the existing political and economic consensus. Their demands are as follows:
- Universal Suffrage. For the last fifty years or so, the Constitutionalists have worked to expand the franchise, and they believe that everyone should have a right to vote.
- A Democratic Republic. Constitutionalists advocate for the maintenance of the various constitutional (duh) norms and frameworks that have guided national politics for decades. They oppose efforts to radically reshape the government or to establish a new social contract.
- Secularism. The Constitutionalists do not believe there should be a State Church, and they advocate for freedom of worship.
- Rule of Law. Though there is an ongoing debate over the question of police reform, the Constitutionalists almost all agree in the importance of the police being under civil and court authority.
- Regulated Capitalism. Though they generally support free market capitalism, Constitutionalists demand at least some regulation and oversight.
- Welfare State. The Constitutionalists believe it is immoral and impossible to leave the millions of poor citizens of this nation to try and survive on their own devices; though there are debates about its extent, all Constitutionalists believe in maintaining some form of government social insurance and healthcare.
- Multicultural and Multiracial Society. This nation is made up a patchwork of ethnic and racial groups, many of whom have contentious relationships with one another. The Constitutionalists argue that society must privilege all cultures equally and make room for minority voices in the public sphere.
- Individual Rights. The bedrock of Constitutionalist philosophy is the idea that people should generally have the right to live their lives the way they want to, especially in regard to sexual relationships, religious affiliation, etc.
- Reproductive Rights. The Constitutionalists believe women are autonomous beings who should have the right to control their own bodies. This is more controversial than you’d think.
Opposing them are the Reactionaries, a hard-right coalition that dreams of a fundamental revolution in national affairs. They hope to turn back the clock and restore a ‘utopian’ past, one in which national society was dominated by aristocratic gentry, major industrialists, and churches.
- Limited Suffrage. The Reactionaries have consistently argued for a far more limited electorate, using artificially restricted voting hours, purges of electoral rolls, and modern-day poll taxes to maintain an electorate as wealthy, old, and white as possible.
- Aristocratic Republic. The Reactionaries, while not adovcating the literal reestablishment of an aristocracy, have long attempted to restrict political power to a relatively small circle of men, and to this end have been attempting wholesale overhaul of the laws and customs of the Republic.
- Theocracy. While the Reactionaries tolerate the existence of Judaism they wish to see Islam and other religions purged from the public sphere, as well as the promulgation of a judicial and moral code based explicitly on Christianity.
- Paramilitary Violence. As part of their agenda of violent repression of large segments of the population, Reactionaries demand virtual autonomy for the police and security forces, refusing to countenance any oversight. In addition, the faction is associated with a number of armed paramilitary groups who break the law with virtual immunity.
- Oligarchic Capitalism. The Reactionaries claim to support an unalloyed Free Market system, though in practice this means enabling and supporting the growth of a tightly-knitted network of oligarchs. Under Reactionary administration, these are given virtual veto power over economic management.
- Personal Responsibility. Reactionaries call for the curtailing or abolition of social insurance, welfare, and all government assistance programs
- Nationalism. The Reactionaries believe in a singular cultural and societal template, and demand full integration with it. Even then, they view foreigners and foreign-seeming people with deep mistrust and suspicion.
- Communalism. The Reactionaries demand that your individual rights and beliefs be subordinated to a generalized communal morality. They are fully willing to use the coercive power of the state to impose “decency” on those transgressing against what their set of values.
- No. Reactionaries believe that the maintenance of conservative sexual morality is more important than the lives of women.
As you can imagine, the political situation in this country is chaotic in the extreme. Waves of mass protests grip the cities, the government has collapses multiple times in the last decade, it’s been years since a real budget was passed, and partisans of both factions live in fear of a coup d’etat. Bipartisan cooperation is virtually impossible, as neither side is able to live in peace with the other–unsurprisingly! Almost 50% of the Constitutionalist coalition is made up of ethnic and racial minorities whom the Reactionaries see as an illegitimate cancer within the body politic. How can one be expected to cooperate with something like that? The Reactionaries see the Constitutionalist framework as a foreign imposition on the original Nation, which must be removed if it is to be restored to Greatness.
Anyways, if you haven’t figured it out already I’m talking about the United States.
The reason there are vast political divides in the country right now is because there are vast political divides between the people. This sounds like a tautology but it’s a statement of fact. The country is not divided because of the media. It’s not divided because of geographic isolation. It’s not divided because of social media. It’s not divided because of the loss of traditional values. It’s not divided because Coastal Elites were mean to Real Americans. It’s divided because the people disagree on a deep and profound level with each other on how the government should be constituted and what values we should live by. The differences I outlined above do not, of course, apply to every person in this country equally. There are many who are apathetic or ignorant of politics, there are still conservative democrats and still (a few) moderate republicans. But increasingly, it represents a taxonomy of the two most important and political engaged factions in America today.
This is not something that can be fixed by the President giving more unifying speeches, or by rallying together after a national disaster, and suggesting so is not only stupid, it is profoundly offensive. We can not and should not “put aside politics”. This is cliche that can only be believed by those privileged enough to never have to face the fact that politics is life and death. Politics determines whether people have heath care or not. Politics determines whether you can vote. Politics determines if the police are working for you or against you. Virtually everything of any importance is political. Putting aside politics in the name of Unity would be a moral capitulation. The United States achieved ‘National Unity’ in the wake of the Civil War, achieved it by implicitly giving up establishing African-American citizenship on an equal basis and allowing the creation of a segregationist cancer in the South. That is only way to “reconcile” two worldviews this distinct. One must surrender.
This is a point that is basically not understood in a disturbingly large portion of our media. (A point made much better here). To a certain extent, the problem is sentimentality and nostalgia. Nobody wants to admit that their country is in a crisis, one that may perhaps be unsolvable. But I increasingly wonder how much of issue is that we can’t even recognize the problem. American education does not emphasize European political history, unfortunately, and I suspect that many people simply do not understand the framework. Politics is implicitly understood as something distinct from conflict. We come out of the British parliamentary system, where both Tories and Whigs have basically accepted the premise of the system since 1688, even as it shifted under their feet. We know about the Civil War and the political conflicts of the 1840s and ’50s, but we tend to think of those as a singular event. The idea that the two political parties could fundamentally disagree about the basis of the Republic is intensely foreign to our conception of ourselves.
But it is time to face reality. The United States could not remain half slave and half free. France could not remain half Républicain and half Légitimiste.
And neither can we.
*Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters