Divided we stand

The problem with bipartisanship

(Globe staff photo illustration)
By Sam Haselby
March 22, 2009
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IF THERE IS a new mantra in American politics, it is "bipartisanship." Barack Obama won the presidency emphasizing national unity; his rival, Senator John McCain, made bipartisan credentials a centerpiece of his own campaign. Prominent politicians from President Bill Clinton to high-ranking House Republican John Boehner speak of bipartisanship as an independent, innate good.

It is not hard to understand the appeal of bipartisanship: it sounds mature, suggesting a harmonious pursuit of lofty ideals. The combined crises facing America and the world seem to require a broad marshaling of national talents, a great cooperative effort that transcends party bickering. What's needed, in the bipartisan ideal, is for Democrats and Republicans to pitch in and go to work, united in moderate agreement.

History suggests that would be a disaster. There is little evidence that solutions to big problems are to be found through bipartisanship, and plenty to suggest that they are not. The ideal of bipartisanship is what historians call an invented tradition, a new thing that cloaks itself in venerability as a way of obscuring its lack of accomplishment. When it comes to crisis - and there are now a few - the record of bipartisanship is particularly weak.

In fact, it is partisanship that enjoys a more distinguished place in American history. America's existence as a nation, its civil liberties, its principle of equality before the law, and some of the most popular and successful government programs all began as highly partisan causes. Accomplishments of deeply partisan origin are so core to national life that it is often forgotten that they initially once divided the people, sometimes violently.

Democracy depends on partisanship - the kind of strong and critical advocacy that opens public debate, forces the parties to explain their ideas, and clarifies choices for voters. Partisan causes are often bold ideas that originate outside organized parties. Though such ideas can initially be divisive, they can also offer the electorate a genuinely new path forward. By contrast, bipartisanship can cloak corruption, obscure chasms between politicians and the people they are supposed to be serving, or simply show that the leadership of both parties has become a closed club. In principle and in practice, a serious partisanship - one that brings fresh reason to bear on orthodoxy - is fundamental to a healthy democracy.

In recent years, "partisan" has become a term of abuse, used as shorthand for the high-decibel rancor that characterizes much punditry and political conversation. When Jon Stewart went on CNN in 2004 and told the co-hosts of "Crossfire" that they were "partisan hacks," this is the sense of the word he was using. But there is nothing innately uncivil or unreasonable about partisanship: One can be a partisan with a light touch as easily as with a shout. On the Iraq war, Stewart's low-key irony has made him one of the most effective partisans in the country.

Serious partisanship is deeply embedded in the history of the nation. Before the American Revolution, political thinkers had maintained that only small republics where a uniformity of opinion existed, such as city-states, could remain both free and virtuous. Colonists loyal to the British king believed that the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain allowed as much freedom as was possible. An inherited aristocracy and a monarch - a leadership beyond the reach of the passions of the people - were necessary to prevent mob rule.

James Madison argued that the opposite was true. Large republics with sharp party clashes were more likely to remain free, he wrote; it was "conflicts of rival parties" that would preserve the liberty of the people and the vitality of the republic. Madison's idea was that the parties push and pull and the republic tacks left and right; that back-and-forth keeps the country on course. The political system, not the individual, is the site of contest, and the proper functioning of that system depends on strong parties that "are, and must be, themselves the judges" of causes. To have consensus, or weak parties, is to risk a tyrannical consolidation of power. Madison's 1787 argument, now known as Federalist Paper No. 10, is one of the most original contributions of the American Revolution to political theory.

Madison was prescient, and highly partisan ideas turned out to be crucial to American liberty. After the War of Independence, one partisan faction of revolutionaries pressured the rest to adopt the Bill of Rights. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, slavery enjoyed the protection of bipartisan consensus; only the feverish partisan rigidity of the abolitionists kept the subject in the national discussion. Abraham Lincoln won the presidency as the nominee of a party that was created to break the bipartisan consensus that had, time and again, tried to push the incendiary problem of slavery off the national agenda.

After the Civil War, the Radical Republicans, a relatively small and highly partisan faction, effectively controlled the government. Instead of merely passing laws, they amended the US Constitution - ending slavery here, creating national citizenship and the practice of equality before the law for all, and protecting Americans' right to vote. All were partisan measures, passed over the opposition of the Democrats and President Andrew Johnson.

In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt reshaped the American business landscape with a "trust-busting" campaign scorned by Democrats and divisive even within his own Republican Party. Decades later, his cousin Franklin Roosevelt also followed a partisan path when he created Social Security, arguably the most successful and popular federal program of the 20th century. Republicans called it socialism.

Bipartisanship, by contrast, has enabled some of the most shameful episodes in American history. In addition to protecting slavery, bipartisan consensus allowed racial segregation after the Civil War and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. The persecutions of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy received the support of Democratic colleagues and were made possible by a Democratic president's executive order. More recently, with the 2002 Iraq Resolution, 29 Democratic senators, exemplifying bipartisanship, joined 48 Republicans in authorizing President Bush to launch the Iraq war.

Bipartisanship has had successes, from the unanimous Northwest Ordinance of the 18th century, which provided a novel and ingenious method for incorporating new territories and states, to the united effort required to throw America's power into World War II on the side of the Allies. Today, bipartisanship holds hope for creating clear new choices on issues that divide both parties, such as nuclear nonproliferation. But even so, "bipartisanship" is hardly a synonym for popular will: In today's Washington, powerful interests can generate broad political support for policies that poorly serve the people as a whole.

It may or may not be true, as the saying goes, that a people get the government they deserve, but people living in a democracy should get the government they choose. Clear choices produce better results.

The ancient Greeks, who invented democracy, recognized this - they considered a true statesman to be not a man who rose above partisan concerns, but rather a man who could clearly articulate and defend the interest of one party. Today, Madison's notion of vigorous disagreement is reflected in many of the world's healthiest democracies. Anyone who thinks American politicians' disagreements are too sharp should listen to debates in British Parliament. The tumult of French partisan politics has led to four constitutions in the 20th century alone, but the society is free and stable, and citizens enjoy a rich array of rights. In the past decade, partisan politics in Turkey have at times been so barbed as to lead to fears of armed conflict, but many think Turkey has one of the most dynamic and important democracies in the world.

In his first two months in office, President Obama has enacted a string of clear partisan policies, quickly reversing the previous administration's policies on torture and interrogation, foreign aid for agencies that provide birth control, and embryonic stem-cell research. He has done so with a collegiality that Americans have not had recent cause to associate with either partisanship or the presidency, even calling his predecessor before announcing troop withdrawals.

Last month, Obama spoke at a ceremony to reopen Ford's Theatre, the site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Amid squabbling with congressional Republicans over the stimulus bill, the president invoked Lincoln in calling on Americans to remember the "sense of unity" that, Obama claimed, is "so much a part of Lincoln's legacy."

As much as politicians like to invoke Lincoln as a uniter, it is also worth remembering that his election began the most dramatic partisan shift of any period in American history. By his own admission, Lincoln did not seek this change, and did not consider himself a radical. But when radically partisan ideas presented themselves as the best - or the only - solutions for the crises facing the nation, Lincoln's "sense of unity" did not stop him from taking a side.

Sam Haselby is a historian of the United States and a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is working on a book about religious aspects of American political culture.

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