The Problem With Bipartisanship


One of the enduring clichés in American politics is that both major parties are dominated by extremists, and this regrettable state of affairs creates all that gridlock in Congress.

This canard was recently recycled after moderate Maine Republican Olympia Snowe announced her retirement from the Senate, effective January 2013. Last week, Snowe took to the Washington Post’s op-ed page to explain her decision, dutifully casting herself as the Joan of Arc of the 112th Congress. Just as with Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh’s explanation for his retirement from the senate in 2011, Snowe cited the frequent unwillingness of Democrats and Republicans to compromise with each other. Naturally, the mainstream media has been rife with commentaries lamenting this blow to the “sensible center.” 

The argument that the parties are dominated by extremists is popular because the person who makes it plausibly sets himself above the nasty partisan fray, standing out as some sort of voice of reason. The solution, according to this narrative, is increased cooperation between the parties, and to “reach across the aisle” to achieve a “bipartisan consensus” on important issues facing the country, even if it comes at the expense of party ideologues. If only we had more Olympia Snowes and Evan Bayhs in Congress, so the argument goes, we could get on with the business of fixing the country.

It’s a nice little narrative, and one that reinforces that idea that some great ideological struggle is occurring in Washington. But there’s one minor problem with this view—namely, that it overlooks what bipartisanism actually is. Rather than help implement solutions to deal with our financial problems, high unemployment, and the crisis in health care, what is called “bipartisanship” can only serve to further solidify the already unsatisfactory status quo. In a political system such as ours, where powerful corporate interests pump Democratic and Republican candidates full of solicited and unsolicited campaign donations on a regular basis, bipartisanship amounts to little more than a compromise between two groups representing moneyed interests. And anyone who wishes to dispute this may consult the staggering amount of money donated so far this election cycle by financial firms, insurance companies, the energy industry, and so on, to Democrats and Republicans alike.

Take health care reform. Branded by opponents as a radical overhaul of the U.S. health care system, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act resembles in some important ways plans advanced by Republicans in earlier years, including "Romneycare." In the end, the bill will force every American to buy health insurance, thereby giving HMOs, and by extension the pharmaceutical industry, tens of millions of new customers. The pharmaceutical industry even supported health care reform because the Obama administration assured them that the bill would not include any provisions that would have allowed the re-importation of drugs at cheaper prices, nor would Democrats allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices under Medicare.

Yet the Affordable Care Act is what passes for liberalism these days, and the fact that it resembles Republican plans of years gone by is emblematic of a shift to the right by both parties. Gone is the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, and in its place has come a politically moderate organization that talks populist but governs corporate. The 35-year bipartisan journey further to the right coincides nicely with the beginning of the massive wealth gap between the top 1% and everybody else, as well as labor’s falling share of national income. And so as Olympia Snowe is roundly hailed as a great voice of moderation in this day of stark political divisiveness, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves what “bipartisanship” really means.     

Photo Credit: jrockefellerIV