of the greatest myths about American politics is that there was once a
golden age of bipartisanship in which responsible, enlightened statesmen
set aside partisan differences in order to collaborate with their
colleagues on the other side. This understanding of history underlies
constant calls for “grand bargains” among left and right on the budget
and other issues. It also permits figures like Ross Perot and Michael
Bloomberg to pose as practical problem-solvers superior to petty
Like most historical myths, the myth of bipartisanship is a poor guide to historical understanding and contemporary action.
Yes, bipartisanship was much higher in the mid-twentieth century than it is now. A new graphic
provides a striking illustration of the ideological fissioning of Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
while partisan polarization was lower in the past, ideological
polarization—disagreements on the basis of philosophy and values—has
always been high. Back in the bipartisan Fifties, there were plenty of
conservatives who thought that liberals were communists and plenty of
liberals who thought of conservatives as fascists.
between 2013 and 1963 is that in the earlier period liberals and
conservatives were found in both of the two parties, which still
reflected the geographic realignment that had produced the Civil War.
The Democrats, still based in the South, had their conservative Southern
and Midwestern members, while the Republicans, still the northern party
of Lincoln, had many liberal members.
Thanks largely to the
political realignment caused by the Civil Rights revolution a century
after Appomattox, the Civil War party system has been replaced by our
present pattern, in which the Democrats are a largely urban and nonwhite
party strongest in the North, while the GOP is dominated by white
Southerners. As a result of the post-Sixties realignment, conservatives
are no longer divided into two parties by memories of the Civil War and
progressives have regrouped into a single party, the Democrats.
the shift is less dramatic when we look at ideology rather than
partisanship. Half a century ago, conservatives and liberals were at
odds, just as they are today. The only difference is that each camp
frequently collaborated with their philosophical soulmates in the other
example, between the mid-term elections of 1938 and the late 1950s, a
“conservative coalition” of right-wing Democrats and conservative
Republicans dominated Congress, rolling back some New Deal reforms and
blocking further liberal advances.
Liberals, too, worked with each
other across party lines. For example, many Northern progressive
Republicans voted alongside liberal Democrats for civil rights laws that
were opposed by many conservative Southern Democrats.
of bipartisanship among politicians who share the same ideology would be
pointless today, now that the left is in one party and the right is in
And even at the height of cross-party coalitions,
liberals and conservatives battled, just as they do today. While
like-minded Republicans and Democrats often voted together, the kind of
“grand bargain” or “compromise” dreamed of by today’s pundits—deals
among liberals and conservatives, of any party—have always been
Even at its peak, then, bipartisanship was never
an alternative to ideological conflict. And it was a temporary
aberration, which came to an end with the ideological sorting of the two
parties in the last generation. The replacement of two highly divided
parties by two more consistent parties is a return to the norm in
American history, when national parties have often disagreed about most
Among other things, the demise of bipartisanship means a
return to the typical pattern of political change in the U.S. Major
reforms have never emerged from split-the-difference compromises among
the major parties. Usually one party pushes through a major reform, over
the opposition of the rival party but sometimes with the help of some
rival-party politicians. The defeated party rails against the innovation
for years or decades, but eventually accepts it.
Before the Civil
War, the Jacksonian Democrats, supporting a smaller federal government,
didn’t compromise with Whig proponents of a strong, active federal
government. They defeated the Whigs and destroyed the Second Bank of the
United States. The Whig party collapsed.
Following the Civil War,
the dominant Republicans did not hesitate to demonize the Democrats as
the party of secessionist traitors, as they rammed through their agenda
of permanently abolishing slavery, federal support for railroads and
high tariffs to protect American industry.
We are now in such a
period again. The Affordable Care Act was inspired by conservative
proposals, including “Romneycare” in Massachusetts and the right-wing
Heritage Foundation’s health care plan of the 1990s. Nevertheless, it
was overwhelmingly opposed by Republicans in Congress, who having failed
to stop it have sought to repeal or sabotage it.
As well they
should, if they believe their own ideology. Today’s conservative
Republicans live in a different intellectual universe than today’s
progressive Democrats. In the alternate reality of conservatives,
cutting taxes on the rich should magically generate full employment;
cutting benefits for the poor doesn’t hurt them but makes them more
self-reliant and successful; and the best way to supply every American
with adequate, inexpensive health care and retirement security is to
abolish Social Security and Medicare and give Americans vouchers to shop
among competing, for-profit corporations.
Where is the room for bipartisan, cross-ideological compromise? I don’t see it.
want to preserve and even expand Social Security and Medicare.
Conservatives want to destroy them and replace them with vouchers.
would prefer that social programs be federal, rather than partly or
wholly state-based. Conservatives want to send most programs to the
statehouses, where they can be whittled down or destroyed.
want to raise taxes on the rich and fund a more generous safety net.
Conservatives want to cut taxes on the rich, cut spending on the poor
and shred the safety net.
Even if we had the party system of 1950
or 1960, there would still be no agreement among the left and right. The
only difference would be that some of the liberals who support raising
taxes on the rich would be liberal Republicans, while some of the
conservatives who want to destroy Social Security and Medicare would be
So let’s not waste any more time on nostalgia for the
supposed golden age of bipartisanship. Politics is not a dinner party.
Politics is civil war by bloodless means—ballots rather than bullets.
For one side to win, the other side has to lose. And for one side to
win, it needs to mobilize enough support to roll over a bitter and
determined opposition if necessary.
That’s how most major change
has come about throughout American history, and that’s how it is likely
to come about in the years ahead.
Cope with it.
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