Is political bipartisanship overrated?


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Bipartisanship, it seems, is more important than ever.

The Democrats' electoral evisceration last week — both at the federal level and in the Iowa Legislature — engendered divided government. So the partisan obstinacy has to end, right? Not necessarily.

Much as it's lionized, bipartisanship isn't an inherent good. Sure, inside-the-Beltway hacks often genuflect at its alter, and voters gripe about "partisan bickering." But bipartisanship is a means to a hopefully salutary end. That's it. It's not an end in itself, nor a stamp of approval for a given policy.

Just look at the past decade. The Patriot Act passed almost unanimously in the Senate (Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, the most august of politicians, was the only one to vote against it). Both parties supported the Iraq War. Democrats flanked George W. Bush as he signed No Child Left Behind. In each of these cases, it's the iconoclasts we now applaud, not those who formed the bipartisan consensus.

In Iowa, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, has engaged in his own intransigence, refusing to bring up a vote that could enable an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.

The truth is, politics is built on conflict. Both parties — and most Americans — generally agree on core principles: freedom, equality, democracy. Concrete conceptions of these otherwise vacuous values vary wildly, however, rendering compromise on many big issues nearly impossible.

And in our system, that's often not a bad thing. Bipartisanship is typically equated with broad-based political agreement, especially by those in the media. This contrived consensus often halts discussion, vitiating the democratic process.

Barring massive one-party control, our politics requires some degree of bipartisanship. Unlike many European democracies, we don't have a system in which one party is essentially given free rein to implement their preferred policies post-election. Still, bipartisanship shouldn't be venerated for its own sake.

We shouldn't forget its many shortcomings.

— by Shawn Gude


President Obama's new pledge to focus on bipartisanship has both conservative and progressive circles echoing with some well-deserved groans. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., recently told "Democracy Now" that Obama's pledge amounts to little more than appeasement, something that's hardly debatable given the quarrelsome first two years of his "post-partisan" presidency.

But even though it is currently ineffectual, bipartisanship itself is not a broken ideal or a failed philosophy; rather, the American future is rife with large debates and decisions that need collaboration from both sides of the aisle.

It's true that many recent bipartisan efforts have proven disastrous, including No Child Left Behind and the Iraq War. But these particular decisions and policies were a result more of willful ignorance, disregard for rational analysis, and knee-jerk loyalty to political platitudes. There is nothing inherent in bipartisanship that encourages the kind of irrational groupthink that results in bad policy.

In an ideal political milieu, bipartisan processes can encourage collaborative thinking rather than the competitive jockeying for power that dominates Congress today. If we take for granted the idea that everyone, Republican or Democrat, has the same basic human needs (say, security and dignity, pride, and a chance to better her- or himself), an ideal government would find division only in the method by which to secure those needs.

Of course, this discounts corporate influence and the idea that happiness and rights are zero-sum qualities. It discounts our current political climate of entrenched bitterness and self-righteous enmity. But larger issues such as the economy, civil liberties, and education reform could benefit from honest, open discussion, and a willingness to work across the aisle to help all Americans regardless of political affiliation.

That would constitute the sort of true bipartisanship that could benefit our nation as we look to a turbulent future.

— by Shay O'Reilly

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