Bipartisan or Bust?

It seems that nearly every time President Obama or Speaker of the House John Bohener makes a speech the magic B word is somewhere in it—bipartisanship. Just yesterday when the Senate passed a stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown, Obama said, “I’m pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan.” Throughout his campaign, Obama also crafted an image of bipartisanship. I can’t help but ask the question, do Democrats and Republicans truly want to work together like they claim? If they do, then there actions (like voting to repeal “Obamacare” by the Republicans or walking out of the Wisconsin state legislature by the Democrats) don’t seem to match their words. And if they don’t actually want to be bipartisan, then why do they insist on spending so much time on it?

The American political party system is an example of an adversarial institution. What makes this institution so interesting is that nothing in our Constitution creates a party system, in fact our founding fathers warned against the influence of parties. Now, however, we have a highly regulated system with complex rules and the party system is one of the foremost features of American democracy. There is a common notion, however, that the party system is somehow detrimental to our democracy and that being an “independent” is a matter of pride.

Nancy Rosenblum, a Harvard professor of government, writes in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, that there is a notion in America that anti-partisanship is an ideal to strive for. In an interview with the Dartmouth student newspaper, she said that “Anti-partisanship is as old as politics and as old as the dinosaurs.”

Rosenblum, however maintains that partisanship is exactly one of democracies strongest positive features, and without it the system of American democracy that exists today would look totally different—and worse. “We don’t need independence or post-partisanship, but better partisanship.”

So, maybe instead of always throwing out empty words about bipartisanship and “above the Beltway” rhetoric, our political leaders could do well to reexamine their own party politics.

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