Partisanship is not the problem

Nick Fitzgerald Contributor
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For once, I agree with E.J. Dionne:

“The point is not that Republicans are heartless and Democrats are compassionate. It’s that Democrats on the whole believe in using government to correct the inequities and inefficiencies the market creates, while Republicans on the whole think market outcomes are almost always better than anything government can produce.

“That’s not cheap partisanship. It’s a fundamental divide. The paradox is that our understanding of politics would be more realistic if we were less cynical and came to see the battle for what it really is.”

Dionne, who counts himself among the far-left extremists, is not someone with whom I partner lightly. But the excerpted passage above illustrates quite clearly—and fairly—the fallacy that, somehow, bipartisanship necessarily begets better or higher-quality legislation, or somehow necessitates a sounder, more reasoned political philosophy.

It doesn’t.

In this way, calls for bipartisanship are similar to those for diversity, particularly in academia; these terms, these impossibly abstract ideas, are supposed to be a means to a much larger end—but instead they are mistreated, with religious fervor, like ends in themselves. Thus they lose whatever significance they might have once enjoyed in the first place.

And in the second place, bipartisanship does no one any good if it prevents the coalescence of a directed, strategic, guiding political philosophy. Now, if it were up to Nancy Pelosi, she would define “bipartisanship” as something resembling involvement by both parties, but not altogether, and not necessarily. “A bill can be bipartisan without bipartisan votes,” she said recently. (Really, she actually said that. House Minority Leader John Boehner should keep that in mind when he becomes Speaker of the House next January.)

So while I might not like the left-wing intensity on full display in Congress right now (see above quote), I don’t blame the Democrats for trying. They’re failing, of course, not because of an incoherent philosophy or Republican obstructionism—the briefest acquaintance with rationality will make at least that much clear. (And the Democrats’ claims of bipartisanship, particularly from the president, have been highly specious.) Rather, it’s because the left’s worldview is being actively rejected by a majority of Americans.

It’s true, as Dionne explains, that the differences between Left and Right are not minute. They are not “fixable,” for lack of a better word—but nor should they be. They are unbridgeable gaps. They are what make conservatives and liberals so.

And while 93 percent of respondents in a January 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll believed that there is too much partisanship and not enough cooperation in Washington, I believe the results fail to identify the real heart of the issue. Sure, the acrimony is draining and the bickering childish—but ours is an inherently partisan system. In fact, it depends upon partisanship.

Our country’s social and civic discourse—political philosophies competing and vying for support in the ideological marketplace—is nothing without tried-and-true, ardent supporters defending beliefs that the person standing next to them might find totally abhorrent. From its very beginnings, our history as a nation is steeped, and richly so, in a partisan tradition.

We have lost something since then, though, something highly important to our culture and our future existence as a people. We’re all familiar with the national motto found on the Great Seal of the United States: “E pluribus unum,” or, “Out of many, one.”

It is the unum, not the pluribus, that we have seemingly forgotten about. The 93 percent in that January poll decry not the presence of partisanship but rather the absence of a single identity behind which we can all rally—of the paradoxical oneness that springs forth from divergent backgrounds and differences, politically and otherwise.

And, before we forget, this notion of “out of many, one,” is a characteristic unique to the United States—it’s part of our inherent exceptionalism, which, yes, does exist. (Ironically, the liberal-elite ethnic and cultural hegemonies of Europe which pride themselves on their enlightened sensibilities and heightened appreciation for food, wine, and the arts have not tolerated such displays of difference.)

So while plenty are willing to complain about partisanship, perhaps we should look rather to acknowledge—perhaps even to embrace—the irrevocable differences that form the bases of America’s diverse political landscape. This is not to say that we demand the other conform to our belief, but rather that all involved acknowledge the competition and challenge before them in attempting to further their views—or, as Dionne put it above, “to see the battle for what it really is.”

I do not see partisanship as a problem, but rather as an exercise in ideological certitude. If it is the price we must pay for principle, then so be it. But at day’s end, we cannot forget to be—in fact, we must strive to be—unum among pluribus.

Nick Fitzgerald is a young public relations professional working in Washington, D.C. A classical music buff, he also authors a blog, Bach & Tonic, on politics, music, and culture.