The Myth of Bipartisanship—It’s Time to Get Tough With the Right

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The Myth of Bipartisanship—It’s Time to Get Tough With the Right

Politics is not a parlor game where good manners always win out. It involves questions of power and privilege, which cannot be solved merely with bipartisan brunches.

(Illustration: Meriel Jane Waissman / iStock)

After the drudgery of the 2016 election, many Americans may want to take conflict mediator Mark Gerzon’s advice for a “transpartisan vacation.” In The Reunited States of America, readers are invited to suspend their regular partisan identities, to be free from “defending all your old positions from those who disagree.”

But this conceit, that Americans of different political stripes can come together and work out vexing political issues, is a comforting mythology debunked by the rise of far-right White nationalism. Politics is not a parlor game where good manners always win out. It involves questions of power and privilege, which cannot be solved merely with bipartisan brunches. By failing to diagnose what ails our politics, many pundits cannot identify the solution, which would require them to stop coddling an increasingly reactionary right.

In his book, Gerzon attempts to boil every problem down to what he calls “hyperpartisanship,” or ideological polarization, which frequently obscures relevant details. The politics of global warming is an emblematic example: Gerzon claims that hyperpartisans on both sides have turned “even a science-based issue like climate change into an attack-counterattack battlefield.” Yet climate change is an odd choice to illustrate the failures of hyperpartisanship, as nearly every prominent Republican politician denies its existence. By contrast, Democrats occupy the center, pushing for an all-of-the-above energy strategy, which includes expanded drilling for oil, extensive fracking, market-based mechanisms to reduce emissions, and heavy subsidies to businesses. Climate change is one example, but it shows a problem endemic to the book: pretending that what is really a problem of intransigence on the right is one of hyperpartisanship on both sides.

Critics of hyperpartisanship rarely mention the Waxman-Markey bill, which is the closest the United States has ever gotten to comprehensive clean energy legislation. The bill failed because of staunch opposition from the Republican donor class (only eight Republican House members voted in support of the bill). The centerpiece of Waxman-Markey was a cap-and-trade system based on an approach used by President Ronald Reagan to do away with leaded gasoline; later, the H.W. Bush administration used it to deal with acid rain. Just years before Waxman-Markey, this was considered an acceptable, bipartisan mechanism to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, Sen. John McCain supported it when he ran against Obama, and had previously introduced cap-and-trade legislation. But that was before the Republican Party decided its path to power was stonewalling the entirety of President Obama’s agenda.
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The flaw in simply blaming hyperpartisanship is pretending we have two parties with similar structures or aims: on one side is a diverse, center-left technocratic coalition that mediates the interests of groups and puts pragmatic, evidence-based governance ahead of ideology; on the other side is a group of politicians, donors, and activists singularly focused on maximizing their ideological victories. This is not merely progressive hogwash, but rather is frequently accepted by a range of political scientists and scholars.

Blaming hyperpartisanship is pretending we have two parties with similar structures or aims.

This point is missed by most elite political commentators, who have the frustrating habit of treating politics in the abstract, as a sort of game to occupy the time of the wealthy. Politics is seen as victimless, the product of white papers, bare-knuckle negotiations, and talking points. The right’s views on abortion are treated like a fashion statement—without meaning and impact—rather than a consequential form of gender oppression.

Gerzon’s book is structured around the stories of various Americans working to bridge partisan divides. Peppered throughout are data and findings, generally devoid of context. For instance, the rise of “independents” is noted without a discussion of the literature suggesting that most independents are secret partisans (and vote consistently for one party or the other). The recommendations are either incredibly ephemeral (“hold both love and power in your hands”) or impractical (vote for “bridge-building candidates” in non-competitive districts?).

With a background in conflict mediation, Gerzon rarely focuses on structural power inequities or the lived consequences of political choices. From the decimation of Black families through mass incarceration to the pain caused to the millions of LGBTQ youth and families stigmatized as second-class citizens, politics has a real impact on people’s lives. The supposedly “bipartisan” nature of 1990s legislation—from the crime bill to welfare reform to immigration reform—masked the grave harm it caused to low-income people and people of color. Welfare reform further immiserated the poor, the crime bill exacerbated the already acute problem of mass incarceration, and immigration reform set the stage for mass deportation. The much-derided No Child Left Behind Act was a bipartisan initiative, as was nearly every foreign incursion in the modern era. Bipartisanship gives many powerful people warm feelings, but it hardly guarantees good policy.

Gerzon frequently praises No Labels, a political group that claims to “usher in a new era of focused problem solving in American politics” but can be more realistically described as an effort to put a pragmatic face on a plutocratic agenda of austerity and privatization. Americans are meant to be drawn in by the sappy sentimentalism, thereby ignoring the fundamental inadequacy of its agenda. My research shows that key proposals of the No Labels agenda are supported by the rich in both parties but are soundly rejected by a bipartisan majority of the working class. If there is any transpartisan movement in the country, it is one that rejects the pseudo-populism of elites.

Politics has a massive impact on the lived experiences of millions of Americans.

Jon Huntsman, a national leader of No Labels and former Republican governor of Utah, was one of the first Republicans to announce he could support Donald Trump for president, in late February (when it was still far from clear Trump would be the nominee). Together he and Joe Lieberman declared that Trump would be one of the six presidential “Problem Solvers.” That the leaders of a group whose slogan is “Stop Fighting. Start Fixing” would endorse the only American presidential candidate in living memory to explicitly incite racially motivated political violence is testament to the fact that Trump has done far more than postmodern philosophers to prove words have no meaning.

More importantly, it shows that the recent calls for bipartisanship distract from the reality that politics has a massive impact on the lived experiences of millions of Americans. The idea that the solution is to simply “get everyone in a room and work it out,” as Gerzon writes, presumes that politics isn’t fundamentally about power and who wields it, to whose benefit and whose detriment. This method of political analysis, popular among privileged pundits largely insulated from the negative consequences of the policies they advocate, is demeaning to the millions for whom questions of power mean access to food and health care, the difference between freedom and a cage.

The Reunited States of America was published in the year of Trump’s ascendancy. The rise of Trump, a misogynistic White nationalist proto-authoritarian, is the refutation of everything Gerzon argues. The problem is not hyperpartisanship; it is a rabid right wing that has abandoned even the semblance of governing, believing that a functioning government is inherently a liberal victory. The solution is to stop rewarding Republican intransigence by treating it as standard partisan fare. It is time to condemn, rather than coddle, the vicious pathologies that have animated Trumpism and far too much of the right for far too long. It was assumed that GOP voters were motivated by conservative principles; Trump shows that the core of the right is in reality reactionary White men who feel they are losing control of “their” country. Trump has made it clear he understands what is at stake— but do the pundits understand?

Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York. His work has been featured on Policyshop, Salon, The Atlantic and The Rolling Stone.

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