If you sense that bipartisanship in Congress is at nearly historic lows, give yourself an “A” for Apperception. The Us vs. Them standoff in Washington today ranks right down there with the most rancorous of times. And most of us wistfully echo the words of Rodney King, victim of a vicious beating by L.A. police: “Can’t we all just get along?”
The answer for Washington, D.C.,—surprisingly if somewhat sadly—is actually, “No.” Although we would like to see a harmonious consensus emerge about how to reform our healthcare system or to protect the planet from global warming or to rejuvenate our base of economic growth and job creation, it’s not likely to happen. And, if we take the long view, that’s probably okay.
It turns out that partisanship—even or especially rabid partisanship—seems to be the normative way that significant progress is achieved in the U.S. This process is not pretty to watch but, over the longer term, seems to have accounted for a pretty fair amount of advancement. By contrast, times of seemingly harmonious consensus have concealed and sustained unthinking and unthinkable outrages against fellow citizens. A few examples will illustrate:
You’d think that the Bill of Rights might have been the product of bipartisan consensus, but it wasn’t. It became part of our Constitution only because a fierce band of partisans fought for it and eventually won over the grudging compliance of the majority who had been content to leave it out of the original Constitution.
The same was true, of course, for the abolition of slavery. The broad bipartisan consensus of Congress thought slavery was just fine. Lincoln and his highly partisan Republican party upset that comfy accommodation through relentless agitation. Later, in full control of Congress and the Executive branch, they embedded full equality in the Constitution over the bitter opposition of the Democrats and their feckless President Andrew Johnson.
Rambunctious and single-minded President Theodore Roosevelt busted all kinds of established bipartisan mindsets, wreaking havoc on monopolistic business trusts and removing massive tracts of land from exposure to commercial exploitation, creating national wilderness areas and parks that effectively “socialized” almost two hundred million acres of America.
And his cousin FDR further “socialized” the country, in the minds of those who vilified his every thought and action, by creating the New Deal and Social Security over perhaps the most ferocious opposition ever mounted in Washington. Later, the Kennedy brothers’ efforts to dismantle segregation alienated and eventually destroyed their own Democratic party’s historic base of support in the Deep South.
Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Hall of Shame features not only the support of slavery but post-Civil War segregation, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the rampages of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the launching of the clearly suspect war on Iraq which was endorsed by 29 Democrats and 48 Republicans.
Does this mean that bipartisanship is a bad thing? Of course not. Lincoln famously said that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But the remodeling of a house—its constant improvement to make it even more durable and satisfying for those who live there—is inherently a disruptive process (as any who’ve lived through it will readily testify). The genius of a democracy is its willingness to put all the issues on the table right out in public, where the differing points of view can be seen, heard, and debated. Eventually, one point of view comes to prevail, and when our citizenry and a few courageous members of the “other party” are in their right minds, that prevailing point of view usually improves our common dwelling place.
This often-painful process is a kind of “inertial guidance system” of the sort used to launch a rocket to Mars. Rather than take a straight aim and hope for the best, inertial guidance systems consist of a relentless chain of tacks back and forth, correcting and counter-correcting the pathway to ensure eventual success. In 2005, many Democrats felt both rage and despair that Carl Rove’s reputed campaign to create “a permanent Republican majority” was succeeding and unstoppable. A year later, Democrats controlled Congress.
Today, many Democrats are equally exercised, but this time because they wish President Obama would abandon his conciliatory efforts at bipartisanship, which they see producing a mishmash of compromises, and be more like Teddy Roosevelt, driving relentlessly to realize his vision of a more equable America and relying on the clarity and rightness of his aims to eventually carry the day. We have heard him speak softly. It remains to be seen if he will also wield the big stick.
This column draws on the work of historian Sam Haselby, for which the author is grateful.