Under a Big Mulberry Tree?
Was President-elect Barack Obama's meeting with Sen. John McCain a "post-partisan" moment? But hold on a sec. What does "post-partisan" mean?
The adjective partisan means "strongly committed to an ideology or party." Bipartisan is defined as "cooperation between two parties to achieve a political goal"; and nonpartisan means "cooperation in pursuance of patriotic, civic or philanthropic goals."
Wordsmith William Safire (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/magazine/10wwln-safire-t.html) tells us the earliest usage he can find for "post-partisan" is a February 1976 New York Times article, referring to the "disenchanted electorate" preceding the Ford-Carter campaign. Safire cites a Christopher Lydon piece: "It is within the fluid and independent middle. . . that could shape new parties, realign the old ones or extend the history of erosion into a new ‘post-partisan' era."
The President-elect has positioned himself as the new standard bearer of the "post-partisan" mantle, but it was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who turned the egghead-only phrase into a political buzzword.
In his second inaugural address last January, Schwarzenegger declared: "We have the opportunity to move past partisanship, past bi-partisanship to post-partisanship. Post-partisanship is not simply Republicans and Democrats each bringing their proposals to the table and working out differences. (It) is Republicans and Democrats actively giving birth to new ideas together. I believe it would promote a new centrism and a new trust in our political system."
Bloomberg talks about post-partisanship in terms of "real results," "honesty and common sense," "innovation," and "teamwork."
The skeptic (and cynic) in me scoffs at phrases that seemingly re-state old ideas with new lingo. These kind of linguistic make-overs feel about as deep, and deceptive, as a marketing campaign. Isn't "post-partisan" just a new way of saying bipartisan? And haven't we seen this movie before?
Before Obama there was George W. Bush -- "a uniter, not a divider." Before that we had Clinton who was going to "put people first." Even Nixon said the goal of his administration was to "bring us together." As The Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/06/AR2008010602402.html) notes: Washington "has a way of consigning such rhetorical hopes to the partisan waste bin."
Yet, while it's easy (and lazy?) to write-off "post-partisanship" as mere marketing, promoters of this "radical centrist" philosophy insist it's something more. Troy Schneider of the "post-partisan" think-tank New America says: "one might argue that ‘non-partisan' is a clearer description than ‘post-partisan,' and that term is accurate so far as it goes...‘Non-partisan,' however, implies a sort of split-the-difference neutrality, where balance often seems more important than finding good answers to hard questions. ‘Post-partisan,' on the other hand, reflects our view that both major parties are fundamentally flawed, and that we need to look beyond today's left-right, Dem-GOP structures and stereotypes if we're to have any chance of solving the most serious public policy challenges."
"Post-partisanship" is about "crafting solutions and ideas without regard to party orthodoxy, and working with (or angering, in some cases!) politicians from across the political spectrum to bring truly fresh ideas back into the public debate."
Mark Satin, author of "Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0813341906/ref=nosim/radicalmiddlenew)," sees it as a new, and original, political ideology.
"Modern liberalism, conservatism, and socialism are all 19th century European ideologies Post-partisanship would be the first genuinely American political ideology. You can trace it all the way back to Ben Franklin. It was Franklin...who often brought feuding Constitutional Convention delegates to his back yard, where he had them sit under a big mulberry tree and hash out their differences."
Satin goes on to list 10 key elements or post-partisan politics (http://www.radicalmiddle.com/x_postpartisan.htm):
1. Relationships as important as convictions. 2. Criticism well balanced by self-criticism. 3. Overriding commitment to dialogue and deliberation. 4. Overriding commitment to diversity of opinions and perspectives. 5. Compromise not the only endgame. 6. Simultaneously creative and practical. 7. A penchant for big ideas. 8. A bias for action. 9. A concern with values and principles. And 10. A long-term vision.
Whether you call it "post-partisan" or plain old-fashioned bipartisanism, polls indicate the electorate is largely on the same vaguely-defined page. The quadrennial post-election survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1032/high-marks-for-campaign-high-bar-for-obama) found that 74 percent of all voters, including a majority of Republicans (56%), think GOP leaders should work with Obama to accomplish political goals, even it means disappointing some supporters. And 77 percent of voters say Democratic leaders should work cooperatively with their Republican counterparts, even though fewer than four-in-ten (37%) say they expect relations between Republicans and Democrats to get better in the coming year, up from 29 percent following the 2006 midterm elections.
It's too early to tell if Obama will be "post-partisan" or simply the new face of old centrist politics. But, it's not too early to see both the Left and Right struggling with post-partisan blues. Leftists (I think correctly) worry that, unless Obama is pushed leftward, he won't go there all by himself. And while an Obama presidency presents numerous political opportunities for "progressives," the Left's biggest problem is still the vision thing. The Left is great at analyzing what's wrong with America but is terrible at articulating how we get from here to there.
But, even as the Left is underwhelmed by Obama's pre-inaugural start, the Right is in real trouble. While some conservative pundits talk as if the GOP simply has to do a better job of "getting out their message," the reality suggests the problem is much more fundamental. The Pew poll also found "a significant generational shift in political allegiance occurring. This pattern has been building for several years, and is underscored among voters this year. Among voters ages 18-29, a 19-point gap now separates Democratic Party affiliation (45%) and Republican affiliation (26%). In 2000, party affiliation was split nearly evenly among the young."
More racially and ethnically diverse than older voters and more secular in their religious orientation, the climate in which young voters have come of age, "incline them not only toward Democratic Party affiliation but also toward greater support of activist government, greater opposition to the war in Iraq, less social conservatism, and a greater willingness to describe themselves as liberal politically."
"Post-partisan" or not, the left-handed Obama appears poised to test Yeats poetic prophecy -- "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold..."