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The Partisanship Canard

This morning I tuned into the Diane Rehm Show on NPR (I know, but some bad old habits take time to break!) while doing a couple of errands in the car. The truth be told, however, I could have been accessing any of a number of outlets in our mainstream media landscape.

How do I know this?

Because Rehm’s panel of Washington insiders (James Fallows, Norman Ornstein, Gretchen Morgensen and Stuart Rothenberg) was pretty much in agreement on the fact that “excessive partisanship” was a key factor in causing the recent debt debacle.

You all have heard the story. America has ground to a halt and is unable to address its pressing problems because both of the major parties have staked out “extreme ideological positions” from which they are unwilling to budge when it comes time to “cut a deal” for the overall “good of the American people”.

In the course of these analyses, we are usually reminded of how in the good old days before today’s “partisan gridlock”, politicians from opposing parties would go out for drinks together and get to know each other as human beings after having at it out on the floor of the Congress. It was the trust established in these after-hours bull sessions, the story goes, that made possible the compromises needed for “doing the people’s business”.

It’s a nice story. Unfortunately it has about as much validity as the one a somewhat unbalanced acquaintance of mine tells me in regard to his failing family business. “Business has never been the same”, he regularly insists, “since that dentist botched the implant job on my left incisor tooth”.

If you turn off the noise machine for a second and actually look at our political processes in structural rather than purely narrative terms, you can easily see that this country’s inability to address any of its major issues stems not from an excess of partisanship, but rather a profound lack of it.

Though they seldom tell us this in high school civics classes or any other forum devoted to governmental analysis, the policy horizons in mature political systems such as our own are not determined so much by the individual acts of legislators, but by the might of entrenched interest groups.

Legislators realize that they must please these interest groups (another way of saying, they must preserve or extend their government-enabled perks) or else they will be subjected withering attacks, rumors and, worst of all, fund cut-offs in the next election cycle. This is especially the case in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The result is the existence of a very broad and extremely durable bi-partisan consensus regarding the need to maintain the status quo on what I like to call the “Linchpin Issues” of American political and social life.

On these core issues, which have embedded within them uncounted secondary and tertiary policy prescriptions and imperatives, Republicans and Democrats have very little, if any, disagreement. It is the failure to budge from these transversally embraced positions, and not “partisan bickering”, which induces the present paralysis of our political system.


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Some examples:

There is a broad consensus in Congress regarding the preference for “private sector” (as opposed to publically funded) solutions to pressing social problems. As we saw in the health care “debate”, this a priori assumption effectively foreclosed serious consideration of the single payer method, the only approach that could reasonably have been expected defuse the health care cost bomb.

There is a broad consensus in Congress regarding the fact that our relationship with Israel is beneficial to the US. This despite the fact that our blank-check support for Israel’s six-decade campaign of expropriation and abuse of the Palestinians is a major cause (the only people that question this are Israel’s many apologists in the US media) of Arab distrust and hostility toward the US. As long as this consensus,--which slavishly embraces Israel’s bully first, talk later approach on its relations with its neighbors and its own second-class Arab citizens--has the unconditional backing of Congress, we will be totally “gridlocked” on the matter of seeking, never mind finding, creative and peaceful solutions to foreign policy issues in the Middle East.

There is a broad consensus in Congress regarding the essential validity of the “War on Terror”, a concept that holds that, “whether we like it or not”, the US is obliged to view most of the world (outside of Great Britain and Israel) as potential adversaries. Implied is the belief we must never, ever “let our guard down” (aka “stop spending obscene quantities of money on armaments) vis-à-vis all those people “intent on doing us harm”. Needless to say, repeatedly telling the many nations of the world, people that might actually like you if you were to modify your behavior toward them, that we (the US and they) of us are condemned to live in a state of distrust, if not open conflict, tends to foreclose many fruitful possibilities. And needless to say, funding this paranoia with heaping expenditures cancels out the possibility that we might actually begin taking care of all the desperate and needy people here at home.

There is a broad consensus in Congress about people in the Executive Branch of government not being subject to the laws of the land. People who broke laws regarding torture, surveillance on American citizens and the need to have congressional approval of military action (to name just a few of the many examples I could adduce), not only walk around free, but openly crow on talk shows and in interviews about how they’d “do it again” if presented with the same set of conditions. This consensually-embraced disdain for the very laws our congressional representatives are elected to uphold and enforce breeds deep cynicism and anger among the general population, and especially among those millions of Americans who, as Barbara Erenreich points out, are increasingly being prosecuted for the “crime” of being poor.

There is a broad consensus in Congress that the rich need not contribute in any inordinate way to solving the problems they had an inordinate role in fomenting. Rather, it is generally agreed in the House and the Senate that they should be able keep almost all of the inordinate wealth they obtained in the last three decades, even if this means letting the millions of less fortunate among us sink into inordinate levels of misery.

And finally, there is a broad consensus in Congress (despite the crocodile tears that some Dems are now sporting before the cameras) regarding to the need to give priority to deficit reduction (favored by the banks and big industry) over a robust stimulus policy designed to give hope and jobs to ordinary Americans.

As I have remarked before, the Baroque sensibility, which characterized the long decline of the Spanish empire is rooted in a central absurdity. It is the idea that you can maintain a wide-ranging and effective discussion about a society’s core issues and problems when large swathes of its intellectual and human landscape are effectively walled off from the discussion.

In the face of this inherently untenable situation, what does the Baroque being desirous of social acceptance do?

He or she escapes into endless discussions about personal style and tone, colloquia designed to elide the core issues of structural power in the culture. And when this fails, they begin to invent and repeat explicatory fables out of whole cloth….such as the one about how the Washington establishment is “bitterly divided” along partisan lines.

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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