Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Is Bipartisanship Overrated? A Polemic

In a word - yes. Here is the longer argument:

A mainstay of American politics is emphasizing the need for bipartisanship. Lately, that call has been directed at senators working on health care reform. A recent example is the joint statement issued by Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, "saying that bipartisanship was essential "to breathe new life into the broken health care reform process." Of course, this is just the latest paean to "bipartisanship". Indeed, it appears that everyone likes bipartanship, from President Obama to President Reagan. To be sure, not all calls for bipartishanship are made in good faith, but my point here is that insistence on bipartisanship is evidence of the defective institutional design we find ourselves in.

What I'm calling for is two things: First, more partisanship. Second, reforming the political structures that will make partisanship feasible. In my ideal world, partisanship is not a bad thing. Having principled positions, relatively clear ideologies and preferences, are things that we should view favorably. I'm not saying we should be dogmatic, of course. And when new information comes to light we must revise our opinions accordingly, but in the main I like that idea that politicians have ideas and agendas and that they are elected in order to realize them.

The problem with these calls for bipartisanship is that they mask the problem that politicians and parties face when they reach Congress. That is, sometimes you can't get your way not because you're not in the majority, but because certain institutional structures (for example the filibuster) prevent you from enacting your policy preferences. Notice, that I'm not talking about constitutional limitations, because those would be off limits regardless of whether you're in the majority or the minority.

The popular view, it seems to me, is that if you can get something passed with bipartisan support then that automatically somehow makes the statute better or more legitimate. If Democrats and Republicans agree, surely there's nothing objectionable about this piece of legislation. Hardly. Yes, bipartisan support can moderate extreme statutes, but often it waters them down in such a way that what is eventually passed is either a patch of compromises not forming a coherent whole, or simply a policy that will not address the main problems that, sans the need for bipartisanship, would have been dealt with. The recent healthcare reform debacle is an excellent case in point. Who here remembers such things as "public option" or "single payer system"? Indeed, to meet the concern that Republican senators might propose a filibuster, especially now that they have 41 seats, the compromises that have ensued leave the reform in tatters.

My point is that I want to stop hearing the wishy-washy talk of working together. Also, can we stop saying: "reaching across the aisle?" Honestly, I hate it. I don't want a political system that is structured in such a way that makes reaching necessary all the time. Of course, cooperation and deliberation have their virtues. But one of the reasons why partisanship is so maligned in Washington is that the political system is structured in such a way that makes bipartisanship necessary. In other words, it is a built-in feature of governance, one that unfairly discredits partisanship, on the one hand, and makes passing major legislation much more difficult, on the other. We need a political system that allows ample space for experimentation and the testing of new ideas and policies. However, as human beings we are prone to inertia and status quo bias. Mobilizing large numbers (and by large I mean more than the majority) to pass governmental reforms is thus inherently difficult. We shouldn't create and institutionalize mechanisms that make it harder.


  1. Yes, more partisanship. Absolutely.

    Governing, and the aspiration to govern, is a battle of ideas and a struggle for power, hopefully toward a purpose larger than simply achieving power.

    I see nothing objectionable about partisanship, even in its most rabid forms.

    I would add, though, that I might not take this position with respect to all jurisdictions. Perhaps, for example, I might take a different view with respect to a country whose constitutional and political culture had not evolved in conformity with the standards of liberal democracy--where partisanship might quickly degenerate into instability, strife, or worse still.

  2. I wonder, Adam, what you think about electoral reform?

    It seems that Mixed Member Plurality and other proportional representational systems, lead to coalition governments where legislating is by necessity "bipartisan". First-past-the-post systems, on the other hand, are more likely to produce majority governments, at least in a parliamentary system. Canada's FPTP system used to be a good example of this, but since 2005 has been struggling with minority governments.

    But, in any case, a single party with strong party discipline that enjoys a majority of seats and forming government can be the most partisan, because it need not compromise in order to get legislation passed.

    Does that make sense?

    Also, as for Richard's comment, I have no problem with partisanship, particularly where a party has been given a strong democratic mandate. In this regard, the Democrats should quickly pass healthcare reform by reconciliation and move on. The problem with the Democrats using reconciliation is not that it's anti-democratic -- they have historic majorities in the House and Senate -- it's that they're too slow moving. They take too long to move, and this gives Republicans enough time to pretend reconciliation is unprecedented or undemocratic. It isn't. But that won't stop GOP talking points from saying it over and over until it really does seem like it is.

    My only worry is the one Richard also has: partisanship can easily digress into meanness and politics of personal destruction.

  3. Jon,
    What you say makes sense. Proportional representation election systems do lead to more coalition governments. However, that does not necessarily entail bipartisanship, because in a multi member system you can have several parties that roughly share your ideological commitments. Israel is sometimes thought of as that kind of country, and there, like recently in Canada, there has been a crisis of governance.

    Electoral reform might be desirable in the US. I would love to see the electoral college system thrown out, though realistically I don't see it happening.

    I share Richard's concern as well, but I don't think it applies in the US case.


Website Tracker