Civility is dead. Partisanship has taken over Washington. The media picks sides.
These are the political trope we are constantly subjected to, with the inherent assumption that these are all bad things. We long to return to a past era – partially real and partially mythical – where there was there was less party line voting and more agreement from folks in DC. It is worth thinking about what we are missing.
Most political scientists agree that the era of polarization began sometime after the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ was able to pass civil rights legislation with a slew of Democratic and Republican votes because the parties were not sorted ideologically in the way they are today. Liberal Republicans were way to the right of conservative Democrats, for example. Vietnam is often marked as the precipitating event that started to change this equation. There was some level of cross-party behavior that lasted until Ronald Reagan’s courting of working-class Democrats, but even this was a testament to Reagan’s unique appeal rather than America’s ideological fluidity.
So if we wish to return to this bygone era, a conclusion one must come to after listening to pundits across the media landscape, we should ask ourselves two questions. First, what was life like before Vietnam sorted us into intractable tribal factions? We should then ask ourselves what a bipartisan world would look like today.
In regards to the first question, it doesn’t take long to realize that the pre-Vietnam political era was no utopia. LBJ was a progressive with a unique character particularly suited toward elite persuasion, but if we remove his unique influence (in addition to the admiration that comes with filling the shoes of an assassinated heartthrob); things were not exactly rosy in the United States for most people. Blacks, women, and a generation of disaffected baby boomers were facing bleak prospects. There was a lot of intraparty consensus, used for things like disenfranchising black people, punishing drug users, and keeping women subservient. This was the era of Emmett Till and the war on drugs. People got along in Washington, but they were not advancing kumbaya policies that improved people’s lives and in fact were actively advancing legislation that we find despicable today.
So what would it look like today if we restored the bipartisanship of era’s past? This is a difficult question to answer in some ways, but probably the best approach is to look at the things that the parties do happen to currently agree on. This is what we might call “elite consensus.” What we find is that elite consensus is anti-democratic and deeply unpopular with the American people. It is inherently anti populist. Today’s elite consensus endorses bloated military budgets that go towards a hawkish neoconservative foreign policy. It loves trade deals that depress American wages and consolidate corporate monopolies. It deregulates Wall Street and expands American fossil fuel production. It subsidizes big agricultural companies while cutting social safety nets to offset the costs.
Every one of the policies discussed above are profoundly detested by the American people, and obviously so. Why would Americans wants their tax dollars to be spent on overthrowing governments in the Middle East or subsidizing crops that will be turned into high fructose corn syrup? What needs to be understood is that this is what virtually every single broadcast news pundit is calling for, from Sean Hannity to Jake Tapper to Rachel Maddow. This, of course, translates to their viewers as you hear regular working people calling for bipartisanship as well. It is a call without a purpose, a buzzword put forth as an inherent good with zero supporting evidence for why we should actually want it.
To believe bipartisanship would create better outcomes than those listed above, which unambiguously serve the interests of the donor class over that of working people, one has to imagine that incentive structures of Congressional members will for some reason change. There is no reason to assume this will happen. It never has. The era that we apparently long for produced the same outcomes. Outsized military budgets, hawkish foreign relations, neoliberal trade, corporate subsidies, and austerity have been the hallmark of the post-World War II order. As long as there is millions of dollars flowing from donors and lobbyists, there is zero justification for believing things will be different in the future.
Here’s the kicker: in a lot of ways, partisanship has saved us from the worst of elite consensus. 2011 serves as an example. President Obama, fresh off a crushing rebuke in the 2010 midterms, was attempting to cut a budget deal with Republicans who had taken over the House. In exchange for small tax increases on the wealthy, Obama proposed substantial cuts to both Social Security and Medicare. These cuts never materialized because Republicans, acting in a partisan fashion, refused to make a deal with the former President. Now, with President Trump in office, Republicans have tried to cut Social Security and Medicare as well. The difference is that Democrats now refuse to go along with the same cuts most of them would have accepted under Obama simply because there is a Republican in the White House.
In a bipartisan era, it would have been easy for Obama to cut a deal for austerity with Republicans. As a result, the age for Social Security eligibility would have increased and payouts would have decreased. Less people would be eligible for Medicare. What would have been the tradeoff? The wealthiest would have to pay a tiny percent more of their income in taxes. They would have gotten that money back and more with the Republicans tax cut bill. Our partisan system is completely tilted towards the wealthy. Bipartisanship would make it even more so. Which working class person is in favor of this? Certainly the movement politics in this country, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton’s drift to the left, are all advocating the exact opposite of elite consensus.
There is certainly a world in which bipartisanship could produce outcomes that would actually combine solutions on both sides of the political spectrum to help working people. There are deals that could subsidize public education and simultaneously expand school choice. Healthcare could combine guaranteed coverage for everyone and Cadillac plans for those with means. We could create a cost-effective strong military that kept us safe from enemies but did not send troops to every continent to police world behavior. Trade deals can promote multilateral international commerce and include labor protections for vulnerable American industries. An immigration system can that expand pathways to citizenship while cracking down on illegal entry.
That is a world of bipartisanship by popular will. These are the type of agreements you would get if you brought working people from across the ideological spectrum together to negotiate public policies that had the interests of the masses at heart. This is not the world in which we live. In the real world, bipartisanship manifests itself as pro-war, corporate subsidizing, austerity-producing rule by the elite. Americans should not want any part of that.