Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Bipartisanship Dodge

Meh.  He was an obnoxious old bastard who always
had onions tied on his belt.
Two fantasies inform mainstream political opinion.  Both are counterproductive and utterly mythical, and both indicate both a deep misunderstanding and a profound fear of real democracy.  But it has always been that way with the wealthy and powerful.  When they are no longer subject to the same kind of oppression and abuse that poor and the powerless endure every day, the kinds of constitutional protections and the rule of law on which democracies are based become impediments to the accumulation and maintenance of power, and a preference for a more arbitrary, authoritarian ideology begins to emerge among the elites.

The first fantasy is the stated desire for a pointless and irrelevant bipartisanship.  We have two political parties with radically different ideologies and governing philosophies.  We hold elections in which we select which political vision we prefer in the near term.  Once we select that vision, why would we then insist that the defeated philosophy be included in the governing agenda?  If we demand that our political leadership govern on the basis of a "one from column A, one from column B" political model, it's unclear what the point of an election might be.

Our system is inherently partisan, structured as it is around two competing approaches to governing.  Over the years those approaches have hardened and crystallized into the two general political ideologies we see today, and have been adopted by their respective political parties.  Over time, the old liberal Northern Republicans and Conservative Southern Democrats have switched their party allegiance, to the point now where a politician's political party is pretty much a perfect predictor of his or her politics. Around the world, this condition is most commonly present in a Parliamentary system, where the party that wins the election forms a government that is by definition a legislative majority and simply implements its agenda.  There are no negotiations - the opposition is simply out of power, left to criticize and complain until the next election.  You hear very little talk of "bipartisanship" in a Parliamentary system.

But here in the US, our elites have decided, quite arbitrarily and with little in the way of supporting evidence, that only legislation that passes with bipartisan support has any democratic legitimacy.  This, of course, is a problem as the parties themselves are so deeply polarized, particularly by the radical, extreme right wing positions adopted by the Republicans, that at this point NO bill can pass both houses with significant bipartisan support, creating a condition where, we are told, we simply cannot legitimately govern.  Now this may make compelling political advertising, but in a system so obsolete and poorly designed for modern governance, it merely cements the systemic dysfunction and ensures no problem can actually be solved in any meaningful way.

The second fantasy is the related demand for "centrist" solutions.  This is nonsensical on many levels, but primarily seems to define the quality of ideas not by what they actually propose to accomplish, but rather by where they fall on the ideological spectrum.  It seems completely self-defeating to demand that government address hard problems but then immediately limit the available solutions to those that meet an arbitrary set of ideological criteria.  But even beyond that, in today's charged political atmosphere, what would actually constitute a 'centrist' solution?  In the US Congress, any solution that requires either deficit spending or increases in government revenue are non-starters, so it becomes quite apparent that, with any fiscal compromise off the table, no legislation anywhere near the center can pass.  In the negotiations over the stimulus package in 2009, the Republican Senator Susan Collins agreed to vote for the bill in exchange for a reduction in spending of a nice, round $100 billion.  No real specific demands, just an almost random number.  Now, this did make the bill somewhat bipartisan, but was it somehow more 'centrist'?  It's hard to see how that could be.

Interestingly, the only real solution to the current dysfunction and inability to govern, short of completely restructuring our system of governance is to utterly abandon both these concepts.  In the current polarized environment, the only way that anything can happen, regardless of ideology, is for one party to win a massive majority in both houses of congress and the White House.  Only when either party can force through their ideological agenda on a purely partisan basis will any kind of action be taken.  Now, these may be awful solutions, or they may bring about a new American dawn, but the ground truth in our system is that all the power is in partisanship.


  1. We have two political parties with radically different ideologies and governing philosophies.

    One party pretends to care about the average American, and the other doesn't.

    But even beyond that, in today's charged political atmosphere, what would actually constitute a 'centrist' solution?

    Solutions that accomplish Republican goals (wars, deregulation, and bailouts for rich people...austerity for everyone else) without all the Republican kulturkampf.

    Today's Democratic party is dominated by centrists.

  2. Ok, so lemme get this straight.

    Centrist solutions are Republican solutions.

    The Democratic party is dominated by Centrists.

    Man, you'd think they could agree on a piece of legislation now and then.

    1. Do they need to, mikey?

      Can you say the plutocrats who bankroll both parties aren't getting what they want?

      Note that the Bush-Cheney tax cuts ("Reagan proved deficits don't matter") are now the Bush-Cheney-Obama tax cuts. And that Obama is closer to getting Social Security cuts than G.W. ever got.

      And as Bill Black says, elite financial criminals have gotten more a free pass from this Administration than any other in the wake of a large financial debacle.

      The Republicans are doing is demanding even more of all the above. The failure to agree in a nice Broderian, bipartisan fashion helps further plutocratic interests, and provides the rubes with the illusion of democracy.

  3. Ok, sure - in general terms I agree with that. It's essentially the functional definition of the "Overton Window".

    But you say it yourself: "The Republicans are doing is demanding even more of all the above." So there's no question that, faced with the shitty choices we have in front of us, voting for Democrats is by definition less shitty than allowing the much more extreme right wing Republicans to assume unfettered power.

    Which is exactly what I've been saying for months...