Friday, October 16, 2009

Is "bipartsanship" really such a neat-o, kean-o thing?

Nancy Rosenblum in Dissent has some useful thoughts on the topic in Anything but Partisanship: Anti-partyism, Bipartisanship, and the Luster of Independence 10/15/09.

The more I blog, the more I hear myself sounding like some grumpy sociologist. And she uses some of the sorts of arguments that make me sound that way. That is, she makes some sweeping judgments/speculations on how "bipartisanship" and its various synonyms got to be thought of as so virtuous. But it's not always clear on what she's basing those. Still, I like the article because of parts like this:

What should we make of our political leaders’ improbable self-distancing from their own parties and the steady drumbeat of praise for political independence? And should we blame partisan extremism for fueling the anti-partisan mood? No. The threat to democratic politics is not partisanship, but the faux luster of independence and its claim to the high moral ground; the danger is the widespread conviction that we would be better off without parties altogether. One cost is that rabid anti-partyism leaves little appetite for reflecting on the ethics of partisanship. ...

And what is there to quarrel with in independence?

For one thing, the virtues attributed to Independents do not stand up to scrutiny. Research reveals that they are the least interested in politics, the most politically ignorant, the lightest voters. Independent voters know less about politics and policy, appointments and their consequences, and their political thinking is more likely to be chaotic. [my emphasis]

Grump, grump: the biggest threat to democratic politics in America today is not the idolatry of bipartisanship. It's the fact that our national press is badly broken down in its quality of reporting, the televsion version so badly broken that its basically just infotainment and scarcely deserves to be called "news".

The press functions as something like an immune system for the body politic. It's not failed press that will kill democracy. It's the problems like the breakdown of the rule of law represented by things like the torture policy, the stolen Presidential election of 2000, partisan prosecutions of phony "voter fraud", massive domestic spying and so on that will be the diseases that kill democratic government. But the breakdown of the "immune system" that the press should be allows it to happen.

So as not to set off my own grump response at myself, I should add that this view is based on my observations of the actual consequences we're seeing today from the collapse in quality of the national press in America. A healthy press doesn't guarantee democracy. A failed press will destroy it.

But Rosenblum's observation is true when she writes, "Democracy needs strong parties and strong partisans." That should be a banal, unremarkable statement. But when you see the corporate Democrats today hiding behind a non-existent need for "bipartisanship" on health care reform as their excuse to try to make it a reform that primarily benefits insurance corporations, Rosenblum's banal comment seems like bold truth-telling.

There are also party-specific factors that have helped create this situation. Through most of the 20th century, the two major parties were not ideologically polarized groups so much as opposing electoral vehicles. Both Democrats and Republicans had liberals and conservatives, reactionaries and even the occasional genuine radical. Even though Wendell Willkie in 1940 ran against Franklin Roosevelt on a pretty unified Republican platform accusing Roosevelt of being a warmonger. (The famous singer and Communist Party member Paul Robeson performed a folk song recapping American national history at the Republican National Convention that year!) When he won re-election to his third term, FDR told associates that we had just avoided a coup.

But Roosevelt later seriously considered the idea of trying to join with Willkie after the war to create a new liberal party in order to force a new alignment of two major parties that actually were much more clearly ideologically differentiated. But of course that did not happen. The Democrats continued with a Southern wing that was conservative-to-reactionary, featuring such odious characters as the hardline segregationists and racists Theodore Bilbo (a former New Dealer) and Orville Faubus (who attended Socialist school in his youth). So for decades after the Second World War, broadly bipartisan coalitions in Congress were common.

Without trying to hit the high points of the transition to today, that is no longer the case. The Republican Party is a highly ideological, fully corporate-owned, reactionary-to-conservative party. And that description gives the "conservative" part more weight than reality probably warrants. And they act like it.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have become a more consistently liberal Party but are chronically afraid to act like it. Which is very ironic, since their policy positions on most everything are clearly more popular than those of the Republicans. The health care reform debate has forced the current state of the Democratic Party into a more clear light that we've seen it in a long time. There is a corporate wing of the Party and a popular wing. And it's the corporate Lieberman-Nelson-Baucus wing that needs to hide behind "bipartisanship".

I'm really sick of the excuses, though. The Democrats have the White House, a large majority in the House and a theoretically filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. There is no excuse for them not to pass a solid health care reform with a robust public option. No excuse.

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