08 January 2008

Against Bi-Partisanship

In politics 'the facts' can be deceiving. And the normative implications of any given state of affairs are perhaps not as apparent as they might be. Over the past few days there have been several stories in the press about a confab in Oklahoma of 'moderate' members of the two parties (see, e.g., here and here and here) who have been decrying the partisan polarization in Washington and pushing 'bipartisanship' as a remedy.

Granted that there is a high level of political polarization in the U.S., that the trajectory has been and continues to be toward greater polarization, let's ask some important theoretical questions. Why? What caused this bifurcation? and What is the best way to respond to it? In other words let's talk not just about 'facts' but about about causes and consequences.

In terms of causes, it is a commonplace that the primary source of polarization in American politics has been the sharp, prolonged movement to the right on the part of Republicans. I have commented on this here before. So, it is important to see that polarization is not a 'natural' phenomenon. It reflects a political strategy - and an effective one I might add - on the part of the right. The right in the U.S. has, through its nefarious institutional manipulations over the past three decades, arguably proven itself a disloyal opposition. To the best of my knowledge no one at the Oklahoma confab has so much as thought about this.

In terms of consequences, why should we endorse bi-partisanship? That is a fundamentally anti-democratic response. Here I am persuaded by argument by political theorists who, following Joseph Schumpeter (whose conception of democracy is, despite common caricatures, neither a 'realist' nor 'minimalist'), insist that robust competition is crucial to a healthy democracy. For instance, Ian Shapiro* suggests that competition has two salutary effects: (i) it allows voters to throw out incumbents (known more appropriately as 'the bastards') and (ii) it pressures the opposition to solicit as wide a range of constituencies as they are able. Given these effects, Shapiro suggests quite pointedly:

"If competition for power is the lifeblood of democracy, then the search for bi-partisan consensus ... is really anticompetitive collusion in restraint of democracy. Why is it that people do not challenge legislation that has bi-partisan backing, or other forms of bi-partisan agreement on these grounds? It is far from clear that there are fewer meritorious reasons to break up the Democratic and Republican parties than there are to break up AT&T and Microsoft."

Now the final sentence does not follow; we need not break up any particular party and, insofar as they are essential mechanisms of political coordination, that might be self-defeating. What is wanted is vigilance against bi-partisanship and the sort of collusion it embodies. That said, Shapiro's first two sentences are on the money. And the Oklahoma 'moderates' are preaching an anti-democratic homily.

If political polarization is troubling and bi-partisanship is a self defeating 'remedy' for it, what is to be done? Among the crucial empirical observations about partisan polarization in the U.S. is that it reflects the economic bifurcation (in terms of wealth and income mal-distribution) among the population. Because the poor participate at relatively low levels, and because many recent immigrants remain unnaturalized (hence disenfranchised), the constituency for a real alternative to right-wing policies remains politically inchoate. The solution to political polarization is to attack economic inequality, to resist anti-immigration policies, and so forth. That might, in fact, require Democrats to stop their headlong rush to mimic Republicans and prompt them to seek to forge broader and deeper alliances between constituencies that do not now see one another as allies. But that would require the Dems to be political rather than play the bi-partisan game. What we need is more robust competition.
*Ian Shapiro. 2003. The State of Democratic Theory. Princeton UP; Shapiro's views overlap in various ways with the otherwise disparate arguments made by Richard Posner, Guillermo O'Donnell, and in my own writings with Jack Knight.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What we need is more robust competition."

Would breaking up the two-party system not enable this?

I am not sure quite what that would entail or how it could be done (because I am ignorant of the American political system), but anyway.

09 January, 2008 04:21  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Given our electoral system - plurality, 1st past the post - we will (in all likelihood) only ever have two parties. So, the issue there would be moving to an entirely different electoral system. We might replace one or the other of the parties we have, but that is a rather mysterious process (although such realignment has happened). In short, we are stuck, more or less with Republicans and Demcorats and my view is to push the Dems to seek out a broader constituency of the folks they now claim to represent!

09 January, 2008 10:26  
Blogger Harlequin said...

In fact, pray you don't break up the party system prior to ditching first-past-the-post. I'm a Canuck, and an abiding plague of our own politics is a first-past-the-post system where a "center-left" corporatist party splits the left vote - otherwise very much prevalent - with one or even two other left-wing parties, while at present the right is unified under a single candidate party.

The strategic voting diatribes from the supporters of said center-left party are downright sickening to voters left of them. The words "Harper majority" are a code: they mean "abandon principle and vote center-left or perish."

09 January, 2008 16:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Schumpeter’s theory of competition for power is the most convincing description of the workings of elections-based, Western-style government. However, it should be immediately obvious that that government system is not a democracy in its intuitive (and original) sense – i.e., a system of government in which all citizens have equal political power. Schumpeter’s conception is not realist or minimalist, but it is elitist.

In the same way that economic competition does not foster economic equality, political competition does not foster political equality, and while concentrated power with competition is better than concentrated power without competition, neither of those is what democratic-minded people should be after.

Rather than using elections, the Athenian system relied on a completely different method for appointing people into positions of power – random selection. It is that method (known as sortition or allotment) that assured widespread distribution of political power.

[This is a copy of my comment at Crooked Timber]

09 January, 2008 21:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to think the ideology of bipartisanship (or High Broderism, as Atrios calls it) sucks, not because competition is such a wonderfully invigorating thing, but simply because We're right and They're wrong.

Bipartisanship is just, for the most part, a euphemism for the compromise of justice. Would that there were less of Them in Congress/Parliament to threaten justice whether or not this meant less electoral competition.

10 January, 2008 00:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe this article can serve as a counterpoint:


10 January, 2008 07:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let’s distinguish the uses of bi-partisanship. I think there are three.

The first use is an epithet against successful partisans. When a majority party succeeds in legislating policies that a minority party opposes, the minority calls for “bi-partisanship.” It is essentially saying “You’ve won according to the rules of the game, we don’t like that, stop it.” Democrats and Republicans have done this at various points. This is an anti-democratic appeal by the minority party.

The second use is as a genuine call for consensus when parties can gridlock the legislative process but still have mutually recognized common aims. This is not anti-democratic. We more often see this on foreign policy matters than on domestic matters or in times of crisis on domestic matters(e.g., federal funding for Minnesota after the I-35 bridge collapse). I would distinguish this from log-rolling—the parties are pursuing legislation or funding that they both agree on, not trading off policies that one dislikes and one supports.

The third use would appear to be what you mean. Party elites might disagree with their constituents wishes, and so collude to limit legislative changes under the theme of “bi-partisanship.” Or they might find elite-level compromise easier to achieve than hard-ball politicking, which I think is more in line with your point. They engage in log-rolling or temper policies that they don’t need to temper.

I would part with your analysis here:
Because the poor participate at relatively low levels, and because many recent immigrants remain unnaturalized (hence disenfranchised), the constituency for a real alternative to right-wing policies remains politically inchoate.

The poor have good reason to oppose freer immigration, not support it, because most immigration would be in low-skilled labor areas, depressing wages, and because poorer immigrants would divide income redistribution benefits further. Increased participation by the poor would likely weaken support to grant immigrants citizenship and possible enfranchisement. Immigration is intractable because it has vehement opposition and support within Democratic and Republican constituencies for economic, political, and racist reasons (and those reasons often intertwine ideologically).

10 January, 2008 09:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It reflects a political strategy - and an effective one I might add - on the part of the right."



12 January, 2008 15:16  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon, I couldn't resist allowing this especially idiotic comment through. No one blames everything on the right. Most things yes. And in this instance it is simple fact.

Poole/Rosenthal/McCarty - none of whom are vaguely 'liberal' in their personal politics - did the study and discovered that, yes, political polarization in the U.S. primarily reflects the sharp rightward trajectory of Republicans. So you can hardly blame the 'liberals' for this sorry phenomenon. It is you and your knuckledragging pals who've created most of the mess.

Don't you just hate it when inconvenient facts (and the causal stories underlying them) threaten your prejudices? It must happen prettyy regularly even if you "LOL" to try to ignore it.

Bye now!

12 January, 2008 17:57  

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