The Myth of Bipartisanship

April 7th, 2009

The Pew Research Center has just released a comparison of presidential approval ratings early during their first year in office (chart at left).  It shows President Obama with a 59 percent approval rating, which ranks him just above Clinton and both Bushes and just below Reagan, Carter, and Nixon.  The fact highlighted in the Pew report is that the 61 percent difference between Democrat and Republican approval of President Obama is the highest by a large margin.

Barack Obama decried partisanship in politics during the presidential campaign and claimed that through “change” and “hope” he was going to put an end to it.  John McCain said the same things and had more credibility because he actually has a record of being bipartisan now and then.

Obama was going to listen to all ideas and let everyone speak, regardless of party or other partisan considerations.  That hasn’t happened, of course; it never does, despite every candidate’s promises.

The hope of achieving lasting political bipartisanship is naive in the extreme. 

dictionary definition of “partisan” is “an adherent or supporter of a person, group, party, or cause, especially a person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance.”  As long as there are two or more political parties, there can be no such thing as bipartisanship (or non-partisanship) because being a member of a political party is the essence of partisanship.  It’s not that partisanship can’t be eliminated; it was done rather successfully in the recent past in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other places where only one point of view was tolerated.

The marked lack of bipartisanship early in the Obama Administration will be seen differently by different people depending on the political prism through which they see the world.  Democrats will explain it as another indication of Republicans’ unwillingness to think and act beyond their own narrow perspective.  Republicans will accuse Democrats of being cynical partisans of the worst kind, ready to work across the aisle only when they can achieve their own partisan goals.  Both sides are right.  In fact, whatever condemnations they hurl at the other side, the same arguments can be just as credibly turned back on them.

Think it through:  If you’re a Democrat, does bipartisanship mean that you expect Republicans to support policies based on your opinions about issues such as abortion, gun control, the death penalty, nationalized health care, higher taxes, expanded entitlements, federal control of education policy, global warming, and so on?  Obama seems to think so; his “I won” retort to Republicans who disagreed with him is pretty clear.  But was winning control of the White House and Congress sufficient for Democrats to stop opposing Republican policies when the shoes were on the other feet?  Of course not.

Perhaps you believe that bipartisanship simply means that the political parties stop fighting with each other and treat each other nicely.  That’s nonsense.  That degree of comity would be possible only if neither side had a strong attachment to their opinions.  If that were true, there would be no need for political parties.

This is not to say that there can’t be periods of bipartisanship in response to emergencies and unusual threats.  However, history tells us that these are short periods indeed.  For example, the bipartisanship of the period immediately following 9/11 was brief.  Britain’s War Cabinet during World War II was only superficially non-partisan.  The fact is, democracies govern through the contending forces of political parties.

Bipartisanship is a myth.  Some yearn for it because they don’t know any better.  Others cynically decry the lack of it as a criticism directed at their opponents or as a defense for otherwise untenable positions.

Let’s hope the myth never becomes reality because partisanship is the substance of party politics, and party politics is the only defense against totalitarianism.

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20 Responses to “The Myth of Bipartisanship”

  1. Kevin |

    This reminds me of a documentary I watched several years ago. I don’t remember much about it except for the one part that seems relevant here: in Spain they don’t even have a native word for “bipartisan.” Why seems obvious – it’s a foreign concept, as is normally the case when a foriegn culture’s language doesn’t have a comparable word.

    I suspect that the appeal in our culture of “bipartisan” is rooted in idealism. But it’s also a product of our unofficial two-party system.

    Sometimes the parlimentary system seems desirable to me because the very nature of coalition building in order to form a government is so fundamentally very different from what we are used to here. It’s so easy for us to treat politics like a college football game where one side can do no wrong and everyone’s hoping the other side can do nothing right. Referees are booed or praised not for making a good call but for which team they call the penalty on. You take a nation like Israel and their political battle lines simply don’t correspond to the two-sided, winner-take-all athletic competition our’s lends itself so easily to.

  2. Tom |

    Kevin, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that our quest for bipartisanship is rooted in idealism.

    A couple of decades ago, academics in Political Science departments spent a lot of time writing and talking about the two-party system and possible alternatives. One of the problems in trying to change it, assuming there is any way to do that, is figuring out what some other party system would look like in an American political context. There are knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns. All things considered, it’s best left alone. And, it’s worked pretty well.

    The main characteristic of most parliamentary systems that interests me is the nature of the executive. I like the idea of the head of state and the head of government being two different people. However, the multi-party systems they generally spawn can be very chaotic, especially when strange bedfellows come together to form coalitions with slim majorities. We’ve seen that over the years in most parliamentary democracies. The UK is an exception, with three fairly stable parties, two large and one small. Interesting to discuss, but there’s no way we could get there without a wide-open constitutional convention, and that’s a nightmare that no one wants.

  3. Kevin |

    Yeah, a formal change to a parlimentary system would be daunting, to say the least. But I don’t see what in our Constitution requires the two-party system. Seems to me that, in theory at least, we could do like we’ve done with so many other institutions and take what we like and leave the rest. In particular I’d like to see more than two viable parties. But the same idealism that yearns for bipartisanship is what maintains the reigning two-party system paradigm. Ross Perot came the closest to sparking a viable 3rd party that I’ve seen in my lifetime. I was onboard too… until I figured out that he was a few french fries short of a Happy Meal.

  4. Tom |

    Had it not been for Ross Perot and his amazing 19 percent of the vote, it’s virtually certain that George H.W. Bush would have been re-elected in 1992, and Bill Clinton (and Hillary!) would have stayed in Arkansas. What might have happened after that is one of the most fascinating “what-ifs” in American political history. But despite his very impressive showing, he didn’t come close to establishing a viable third party. Kind of indicates that there will never be one, unless something far more dramatic happens.

  5. Kevin |

    You may be right about that. But… seems to me that the greatest asset of the Reform Party was also it’s greatest liability: a cult of personality. Notable and popularly known figures obviously play a valuable role in sparking new major parties. But it can’t be about them. It has to be about the common principles around which everyone is rallying.

    As critical as I’ve long been of most of it’s founders and leaders, I see the Israeli experience with Kadima as a template for how it could be done here. That’s what I was hoping for when there was rumors that Mayor Bloomberg was going launch a third party – possibly with Colin Powell. I was thinking, “Kadima, Kadima, Kadima!! Yes! This has potential!” But alas it was just rumors.

  6. Brian Bagent |

    Our founders were apalled at the idea of what they called “factions” and what we now call political parties. Unfortunately, even for them, things devolved rather quickly. I suspect that Madison and Jefferson would wretch if they could see what has become of what they started.

    Apparently, simply following the law is simply too impractical any more (not that it ever really was practical), but at least they didn’t have to bear the weight of such a monstrous government.

  7. Tom |

    Brian, if you believe that the U.S. has a “monstrous government,” I’d be very interested to know what practical form of government you think would be better. I’m sure you don’t mean no government at all because reverting to a state of nature and survival of the fittest would seem to be a worse state of affairs. Most of the governments around the world that I’m familiar with are worse than ours in many ways. A very few may be about as good, but their ills aren’t much different from those of our own. So, what would you replace the U.S. federal system with? Something practical and functional in the modern world, please, given that it has to consist of human beings with all their faults.

  8. The Hawg! |

    Good point. I grew up in a town where there was no “bipartisan bickering.” Instead, we had one party doing what it wanted all the time and wound up with as corrupt and self-serving a batch of politicians as you’ve ever seen.

    Two strong political parties fighting constantly is essential. Without it, government becomes larger, more oppressive and generally more oppressive.

  9. Erik |

    I think the two party system is a straight false dichotomy.

  10. Brian |

    Certainly not anarchy, and Rousseau’s “noble savage” is an idiotic myth.

    The government is simply far too involved in our daily lives. You cannot even have a daily constitutional or a simple shower without its involvement. Any government that may demand “you must do this, or you must do that” is monstrous. Prohibitions on things that are best categorized as mala en se are one thing, and it is for the protection of individuals under this category that just governments are formed. What we have devolved into is a government that creates laws falling under the category of mala prohibita. That is simply monstrous. In fact, it is the antithesis of civilization.

  11. doris |

    You can keep the Gov. out of your personal life if you keep your old showerhead and old commode. My husband won’t get a new one, won’t flush with such little water; all the old stuff doesn’t fall under those rules. The solution is to change it or use the old stuff, that’s a good environmental thing anyway. Don’t care about the environment, then use, use, use. I intend to have my water, as I have my own well and pay to extract the water. I also drive a huge diesel using truck, 20 miles to the gallon, and I am keeping it, like it or no. I do care about the planet, but I want what I want, typical American, no wonder other countries hate us? Our Gov is one of the few where you can openly critize the heinous big Gov. and keep your freedom, and we can live in the woods and do pretty darn well what we please and can afford and complain, complain, complain about our Gov. trying to protect the environment for our grandchildren, imagine that?

  12. Brian |

    Doris, the fact is, though, that I cannot get those things if I want them.

    Another one. In an effort to conserve fuel, the government has mandated that gas companies put ethyl alcohol (derived from corn) in their gasoline formulations. On most vehicles, this has either no effect on mileage, or it has reduced it. Even better, because the demand for corn has risen, the price of corn has gone through the roof. Have you noticed that meat has gotten more expensive? I’ve certainly noticed that it now costs a lot more to feed my animals.

    Since the public isn’t benefiting from this formulation through less fuel consumption, and ethanol gas is more expensive (meaning you are burning more fuel and paying more for it), you have to ask yourself who it is that benefits from this. The obvious answer is “corn growers.” As recently as summer of 2007, corn was selling at a little over $3/bushel (about 55 pounds). As of today, it’s right at $4/bushel, but last summer it was nearly $5/bushel.

    Obviously, this is great for corn growers, but it is turning into a disaster (it was predicted to happen) for everyone else in the country. It is a disaster for consumers because everything that we buy that has corn in it is now more expensive. It is a disaster for livestock growers (cattle, hogs, poultry, rabbits, sheep, and goats) because the cost of feed is dramatically higher. Some of the cost is passed on to the consumer, but the livestock folks are having to absorb a portion of it. It is forcing some of them out of business.

    It doesn’t end there. Government involvement in auto manufacturing costs us dearly as well. UAW contracts are indexed to the minimum wage. Because of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) laws enacted as a response to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, auto manufacturers must waste money designing, building, and selling cars that the public doesn’t really want. In fact, the Big 3 lose money on every one of these matchbox cars that they are forced by law to make. I have two friends on the east coast that are in the auto biz (one is a sales manager, the other a financing manager) who tell me that they lose about $5000 on each one of these losers (for egs, Ford Festiva and Focus, Geo Metro, and others). They lose money on them because nobody will buy them at a price that would bring a profit. Consequently, the vehicles that will bring them a profit are even more expensive than they otherwise would have been because they have to recover the cost of the losers via higher prices on the winners in order to make any money at all.

    The federal government is not the only one doing idiotic things like this. As recently as about 3 years ago, a cab ride from Cy-Fair (suburban NW Houston) to IAH cost about $25-30. The City of Houston decided, in all its wisdom, that the cab/limo service needed “regulating.” Now, that same ride costs nearly $60. The fare would have increased due to rising fuel costs, but it wouldn’t have doubled without an assist from government.

    The bottom line is that government involvement benefits the people that lobby the government, and generally injures everybody else.

    I’d love for someone to explain to me how this sort of intrusive government comports with …governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… (emphasis added).

    In free markets, in general the winners are the industrious, the thrifty, the persistent; the losers are the indolent, the spendthrifts. In markets where the government interferes, the winners are generally those that have friends in government, and it doesn’t matter if your product is substandard and expensive, or if there is little market for your product.

  13. Kevin |


    The Big 3 have long had a hard time turning a profit on their “matchbox” cars because they’re built like crap. Toyota, Nissan et al have been turning very handsome profits building *quality* matchbox cars which sell like hotcakes here. Clearly there is a strong market for those small cars, but only if they are well built.

    Here’s a website that tracks complaints about cars. That’s a link to their Top 20 list of “Most Problematic Vehicles.” Only 4 of them are foreign cars – all four are Honda’s, interestingly enough. All the rest are American made by the Big 3. The three worst are all Ford SUVs. Not a single one of the 16 American made vehicles are a “matchbox” car. So clearly the Big 3 can’t even build their popular vehicles properly!

  14. Tom |

    Kevin, I don’t know about the site you linked to, AutoBeef. The page you linked to seems to list the worst vehicles on the basis of how many complaints were sent to them about specific makes and models. This appears to be a gross number, without being adjusted for the total number of vehicles sold, etc. That would mean the more popular a vehicle is, and the longer it stays on the road, the more likely there are to be complaints about that vehicle.

    The most reliable websites for vehicle evaluations and comparisons are JDPower and Edmunds. You can also find them at ConsumerReports, although you have to have a paid membership to get much. I looked at all three and can’t find a comparison of the kind that’s on AutoBeef.

    In any case, market forces drive auto sales. SUVs and pickups continue to be extremely popular. In contrast, dealers are almost giving away the Prius because very few people want them, despite the facts that it’s a good quality vehicle and the U.S. government is subsidizing them.

    When governments run auto industries (fire chief executives, dictate production of makes and models, etc) you end up with gems like the Trabant (East Germany), Zhiguli and Volga (USSR), and Zastava/Yugo (Yugoslavia). I’ve lived in Russia and Yugoslavia, and I spent a lot of time in East Germany (another leftist nirvana) before it collapsed. I’ve ridden in all these cars and driven a few, and believe me, this ain’t what we want. At least, it’s not what I want.

  15. Kevin |

    Market forces do drive auto sales, I agree completely.

    I drive an old 1993 Toyota Corolla Wagon. It looks almost identical to the 1993 Ford Escort Wagon which was made by Mazda (Ford had 25% stake in Mazda) but had a Ford engine in it. So much so that when I take my car in to get new tires or brakes or whatever the visual assumption is made that it’s an Escort rather than a Corolla. Kelly Blue Book value for my Corolla is twice as much as for the most comparable Escort.

    Apples to oranges? Perhaps. A more apt comparison might be a Ford Escort to it’s most comparable model of Mazda. The base models of each appear to be the most comparable, with the engine being the chief difference. The Mazda sold for slightly less, had a smaller, less powerful engine which got slightly worse gas milage than the Ford engine. Kelly Blue Book shows the Mazda being worth more than it’s near identical twin Ford Escort.

    What’s interesting about the Ford Escort in light of Brian’s ideologically-driven comment above is that the Escort replaced the poorly selling Pinto (100% Ford designed and built). In it’s second year the Escort was Ford’s best selling model in their entire line up.

    Market forces do drive auto sales, even here in America. The evidence is clear: American-designed and built compact cars are considered by Americans to be inferior to foreign-designed and built compact cars and are consequently worth less on the used car market where real life has determined which were quality designed & built and which weren’t.

    Blaming the economic ills of the Big 3 on Big Brother is, IMHO, an exercise in self-deception.

  16. doris |

    Feed is exorbitant, it ain’t hay, clearly doesn’t have the same meaning anymore. Hey, the Pinto was a flamer and constantly caught fire. I believe the big 3 made their own bed, not the Gov. They overpriced their vehicles right out of selling; my truck cost more than my house did 20 years ago. They still don’t negotiate to amount to anything and set prices too high and will let you walk out, never calling you back. They don’t really want to sell their vehicles. Have any of you tried to purchase a car lately? I did and was ignored and got not one place to really negotiate. They act as if they have all the sales they need. They are apparently not hurting enough. It does appear that everything the Gov. tries to regulate turns to poo, so is this due to big Gov. or idiot executives or just poor planning? Tom, I just heard on CBS that the president’s rating was up to 64%, believe that? Someone must think he’s doing a good job, or all polls are rigged. I prefer that reason.

  17. Carla Axtman |

    Our founders were apalled at the idea of what they called “factions” and what we now call political parties. Unfortunately, even for them, things devolved rather quickly. I suspect that Madison and Jefferson would wretch if they could see what has become of what they started.

    Hmmm….I don’t think they’d be appalled at the party system. Heck the two of them practically invented American-style attack politics in the “devotion to party” sense, when they went after John Adams via newspaper man James Callendar: Founding Fathers’ Dirty Campaign

  18. Tom |

    Carla, there’s no doubt that various political camps were pretty nasty to each other in those days. The names they called each other in the article you linked to make today’s political arguments seem very mild.

    I think what they would have disliked is the way two political parties have become so formalized and entrenched that they control virtually the entire political system. In their day, groups of supporters of one candidate assailed the other candidate, and vice-versa. Those groups shifted and changed as time went on and different candidates emerged. That it would all evolve into formal parties was probably inevitable.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    During a neighborhood party, Joe got into an argument with his neighbor about presidential politics. Finally, the neighbor asked why Joe was such a dedicated Democrat. Joe told him that his father and grandfather were both Democrats and he was carrying on the family tradition.

    “That’s it?” said the exasperated neighbor. “What if your father and grandfather had been horse thieves?”

    “Well…” Joe replied, “I suppose then I’d be a Republican like you.”

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    A Republican and a Democrat were walking down the street when they came to a homeless person. The Republican gave the homeless person his business card and told him to come to his business for a job. He then took twenty dollars out of his pocket and gave it to the homeless person.

    The Democrat was very impressed, and when they came to another homeless person, he decided to help. He walked over to the homeless person and gave him directions to the welfare office. He then reached into the Republican’s pocket and gave the homeless person fifty dollars.

    Now you understand the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

  19. doris |

    Not! Good ones, though. I especially love the part where the Democrat takes the 50 from the Republican, yes! Obviously, the Republican was a big business executive, and the Democrat had nothing left to give after we bailed out the Republican.

  20. opah |

    Obama talks of partisanship so here is something for everyone that the Democrats don’t want known. There is a bill (HR 45 ARM) that the dems are trying to get passed. This gives the government the right if you own a firearm to come into your house whenever they want to check the weapon and there are certain types that they want the right to sieze whenever they are found. If this is passed, I feel it would result in another revolution.

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