Senator Evan Bayh’s (D-IN) announced retirement yesterday has sent the calls for bipartisanship into a fever pitch. In general, pundits and critics, including “moderate” senators like Senator Bayh and the Obama White House, like to deride the Congress for various shortcomings such as their inability to “do the people’s business”, cooperate to solve today’s crises, and being too ideological. The general import of these criticisms is that ideology is poisonous, and that our legislatures should “rise above” such partisanship for the good of the country. But bipartisanship itself is an ideology.
For in order for these attitudes to be justified, it must be assumed that there is some kind of new, enlightened form of non-ideological (practical) approach to lawmaking that is only apparent to the great independent middle of the American political spectrum. However, those who call for bipartisanship are deeply misguided for three reasons: (1) they seek to achieve a romanticized legislative approach that perpetuates the myth of America’s lost “great deliberative body”; (2) is based on a false understanding of the constitutional role of the legislature that is antithetical to popular government; and (3) draws false inferences from current political trends which purportedly justify these themes. Most importantly, they fail to realize that “bipartisanship” is a partisan ideology in itself, albeit one that is intellectual hollow and shockingly unenlightened.
Perhaps the sole driving force of the bipartisan movement is a desire for a long lost form of statecraft, that America’s great legislators of yesterday did not bestow upon today’s generation of political hagglers. But this is a distorted view of our legislative history, further perpetuated by a myopic media narrative. There may have been many bipartisan legislative accomplishments throughout the whole of the 20th century (Social Security, Civil Rights Act, Medicare/Medicaid). However it’s a far leap to say these achievements were a result of meritorious lawmakers who were willing to sacrifice for their country. One needs only to watch the popular “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to see the legislative process was not much different in the 1930s than it is today, or to be precise, the Hollywood portrayal of legislative process. The reason for these bipartisan achievements was bipartisan consensus in the electorate, plain and simple. This is why legislation that does not receive large bipartisan support does not remain in force – because if the people don’t consent to it, they elect representative to repeal it. It has nothing to do with the nobility of the legislators who enacted it. See prohibition, or nearly the entire 19th century legislative history, if you are one of those who believe that once legislation is enacted it is destined to remain, simply because enough legislators supported it.
In fact, there is no reason to presume that lawmakers could, or even should, put aside their personal interests and compromise their votes for the pure sake of compromise. It violates human nature, and perpetuates a false, aristocratic idealism of the noble statesman. History of popular government proves there is no such thing. Rather, power structures, whether democratic or autocratic, are always fought for and controlled by one type of individual: power seekers. Thus, the legislature is expected to be a partisan body, and its function is to be a civil alternative to arms. In a vibrant and free republic, the populace is expected to be in a constant state of agitation, and political uprisings are normal. The purpose of the legislature is to facilitate this never-ending battle for power, and finds social stability through simple majority rule.
In face of this reality, our founders did not try to find ways to increase Congressional efficiency or facilitate compromise, because it is ludicrous (and ignorant of history) to ever think that such a political body could ever be expected to behave that way. Rather, the constitution’s authors sought every manner possible to slow the legislature down, and make it more difficult for them to shape the law. This is partly why they created two bodies, and established the filibuster (which contrary to popular liberal myth, is not a new invention.) These barriers prevent every newly elected legislature from constantly overturning its predecessor, and forces the stability and respect for the minority which legislatures are utterly incapable of on their own. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Papers 26-28 explains this concept in fine detail.
Our founders were not ignorant. Fully aware of the shortcomings of popular governments, they created the executive branch to act with speed and decisiveness when our nation required it. Thus, if “the nation’s business” is not getting done, it should be understood that lawmaking and governing are two different things. Contrary to the media’s strange narratives, we don’t live under a parliamentary system either, and it is a great danger to pretend the White House and the majority party in Congress are separated in their duties by merely a grey fog.
Finally, the bipartisanship ideology draws upon incorrect inferences about our nation’s electorate to assume that the growing body of “independents” are bipartisan, or even want bipartisanship. In essence, there are only two reasons one might decide not to associate with the parties: (1) the voter is non-ideological, and don’t like the party system itself; (2) they are ideological, but don’t believe the parties represent their beliefs. The leaders of the bipartisan movement would like the assume most independent voters are members of the first, but it is equally likely to be the latter. Considering the second rationale, one might actually abandon the party system because the parties are too similar, and don’t offer the voter a clear difference. Thus, too much bipartisanship is a real danger. Taken to an extreme, this becomes a covert form of one-party rule, and in fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest Washington has found its way into such a form. Lawrence Lessig recently published an article in the Nation, making the argument that no matter who you elect, republican or democrat, you are going to get the same thing – protection of the status quo. He cites as examples both the inability of the Obama White House and democratic congress to enact virtually anything its supporters want, and also the fact that after nearly 30 years of republican rule of Washington, they managed to decrease the size of government by a factor of zero. The government is actually bigger today than it was in 1980 at the start of the conservative ascendency.
Therefore, bipartisanship is far more likely to be a cause of Washington’s perception as “broken” rather than an ailment. The truth is that Washington is not broken, but operating precisely in the slow-moving, partisan, “corrupt” way that our founders envisioned it would. Those who call for more bipartisanship are proceeding without a mature sense of the deep history and purposeful construction of democratic governments. Rather, they operate with the same aristocratic assumption that government has certain things it “must” do, and thus distract and deflect the important debate over what exactly that is. To simply assume that lawmakers should compromise for the sake of comprise presupposes the validity of the solution, and subverts popular will more than it promotes it. As such, politicians who incessantly harp about “bipartisanship” should be viewed even more skeptically than the pundits, because chances are they are merely deflecting away from the real debate on substance.
Lessig gets it. Those mourning for a loss of bipartisanship do not.