The conventional wisdom on the state of the American government is disheartening. It is also convincing, as one would expect a hodge-podge of observations and common knowledge to be.
It is common knowledge, for example, that our government has become dysfunctional because Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats.
Everybody knows too what the remedy is: we need more bipartisanship. The government would become more functional if Democrats and Republicans cooperated more.
Everyone’s wellbeing depends on a well functioning government. Bipartisanship is therefore in everyone’s interest.
On this, even the plutocrats are or ought to be on board. If anything, they need a functioning government more than the rest of us.
Too bad therefore that they sometimes find themselves so overcome by greed, and so blinded by the lure of short-term gains, that they do the wrong thing – not just for the country, but even for themselves.
This is one reason why we seem unable to get from here to there, from our current sorry state to a condition where government works at least as well as it did when Democrats and Republicans still got along tolerably well.
The problem has become worse now that the Supreme Court removed nearly all legal constraints on the ability of moneyed interests to game the system.
Its 2010 Citizens United ruling was not only disastrous for the ninety-nine percent. It also removed one of the ways that the one-percent was saved from the consequences of its own rapaciousness and myopia.
Then, to make matters worse still, there are the characters who comprise the American political class.
In addition to their inherent limitations and lack of regard for the common good, electoral and pecuniary interests sometimes lead them to do all they can to placate constituents who will not tolerate compromises of any kind. This is especially true on the Republican side. Their “base” is sublimely obstinate.
In Democratic ranks, and in the White House, there are politicians aplenty who have taken Robert Frost’s characterization of liberals to heart: they won’t take their own side in an argument. They are so “reasonable” that they practically invite their more obdurate and mean-spirited colleagues to walk all over them.
The conventional wisdom therefore has it that bipartisanship is in short supply, that we would be better off if there were more of it, and that the obstacles in its way are daunting and perhaps insurmountable.
This is a plausible account of how things are; it explains a great deal.
But is it true? Are the assumptions underlying it correct? And are those who believe it looking at the situation the right way?
If we are to make things better, or at least to keep them from getting worse, coming to terms with these questions is of the utmost importance.
* * *
“Bipartisanship,” neither the word nor the concept it expresses, plays no role in the great philosophical justifying theories of democratic institutions.
This is hardly surprising; those theories predate the rise of the party system in early nineteenth century Europe and North America. It is telling, though, that no one has ever seen fit to update them by incorporating “bipartisanship” into their conceptual repertoire.
It is not just that the idea is of no inherent philosophical interest. It is more that it is a provincial concern. Even in a world where it has become normal for political parties to mediate between voters and the state, the American duopoly system is an outlier.
To be sure, what goes on in the empire’s core is, almost by definition, not provincial. But this case is extreme enough to overcome the general rule.
In the United States, each state makes the rules that govern its electoral contests; the federal government’s role is minimal and focused mainly on assuring that Constitutional rights are respected.
And every state permits multi-party electoral competition. That, anyway, is the theory. In practice, they all make ballot access difficult, and they all do whatever they can to marginalize “third” — or fourth or fifth – parties. They are so effective that candidates who are not Democrats or Republicans have to struggle even to attract protest votes.
This is why when independents or third party candidates gain electoral office, it is almost always at the local level; and it is often in “non-partisan” elections in which the party affiliations of the candidates aren’t even known to most voters.
I say this as someone who always votes, but almost never votes for Democrats; voting for Republicans is, of course, out of the question. But protest voting is cheap. If there were a way to distinguish abstention from indifference, not voting at all would be an even more fitting way to express a considered judgment.
But however that may be, for now and the foreseeable future, the fact that Democrats and Republicans dominate the political scene makes bipartisanship important — notwithstanding the fecklessness of Democrats and the malevolence of Republicans, and notwithstanding the irrelevance to democratic theory of how well or poorly they get along.
When bipartisanship is in short supply, as it now is, the system freezes up; there is gridlock. The more gridlock there is, the more the government is disabled.
This can be a good thing; it has so far prevented the Obama Administration from grand bargaining away the remaining gains of the New Deal – Great Society era. But, on balance, gridlock works to the detriment of us all.
This is an American phenomenon, but the reasons for it are institutional, not cultural. It would be the same anywhere that two semi-established parties monopolize the electoral scene.
Most observers nowadays, not just Democrats, take it for granted that Republicans are mainly to blame for bipartisanship’s decline. They think that Republicans have either lost sight of its importance or else that they have chosen deliberately to disregard it.
If the latter, it may be because they or their constituents hate the President so much that they cannot bring themselves to cooperate even for the sake of the public good. There is truth in this; some anxious and benighted white folks do hate the President – for the wrong reasons.
Or perhaps Republicans think that a dysfunctional government will help bring them to power – and they care more about that than about the consequences of dysfunctional governance.
Whatever the reasons, from the moment Barack Obama assumed office, Republicans have done their level best to obstruct his every move.
Rarely have any of them said so directly, at least in circumstances where they might be overheard. But candor is scarce in Republican ranks; so too is self-understanding.
When Republican obstructionists do try to justify themselves, they gravitate towards one or another tenet of neoliberal ideology — “free market” theology — or they appeal to macroeconomic idiocies about the harmful effects of deficit spending and high levels of government debt in periods of slow or negative economic growth.
No doubt, many of them believe in the nostrums they propose, and their sincerity, if genuine, is estimable. But it hardly cancels out the harm their ill-conceived and mean spirited policies cause.
It is noteworthy, however, that even in their most obstructionist moments, Republicans still uphold bipartisanship as an ideal. It is just that they want it on their terms – not their rival’s.
And so, each side blames the other for keeping bipartisanship at bay.
Because Republican disingenuousness is palpable, and because Obama seems reasonable to a fault, he and his colleagues in the Democratic Party have the stronger case according to the common knowledge of most sensible people.
But this benefits him almost not at all when it comes to governance because, in our “democracy,” it hardly matters what most people, much less reasonable people, think.
Nevertheless, for Obama especially, but not only for him, “bipartisanship” has become the Holy Grail. He seeks it relentlessly, and he is disappointed every time. Republican obduracy always gets in the way.
The remarkable thing is how maladroitly Obama pursues his quest. The more he tries and fails, the weaker – indeed, the more risible — he seems, and the less incentive Republicans have to go along. It is as if he wants to lose.
It could have been otherwise, and not just in the months after the 2008 election when Obama had political capital to spare. Were he and his fellow Democrats truly committed to “change,” and were they less awful at strategizing or even just a little shrewder, they would have long ago figured out how they too could play the Republicans’ game.
It is just a matter of leveraging their considerable, underutilized, power by being less eager to give in.
Had they done so, they could have steered the legislative process in the directions they favor (or say they favor), just as the Tea Party has been doing from the moment it was concocted.
This may still be possible, though, at this point it is hard to see how anyone this side of the MSNBC evening lineup can still take Obama seriously.
But it isn’t going to happen; Democrats are (small-c) constitutionally incapable of changing their ways, and Obama doesn’t have it in him to govern effectively.
The future therefore promises more of the same; Republican obstinacy along with Democratic cluelessness and pusillanimity.
Were our capitalists more enlightened or where our parties less in lockstep ideologically, there might be a chance of breaking out of the circle. But, as things now are, there is no chance.
We have come to a point where radical solutions are necessary even for just restoring the business as usual of the still recent past.
To appreciate the depth of the problems afflicting us, we need to look beyond the obvious failings of Democrats, Republicans and capitalists blinded by greed.
We need to ask ourselves why, if they are all such blunder heads, they, the capitalists especially, are still prosperous and secure?
Perhaps the conventional wisdom has gotten it wrong. Perhaps the problem is not too little bipartisanship but too much.
* * *
On matters that affect most of us, the ninety-nine percent, the conventional wisdom is plainly on track. Republicans, Democrats, and greedy, myopic capitalists have turned the American government into a dysfunctional laughingstock – to the detriment of one and all.
The perpetrators are not about to change their ways either. Even if they care about the consequences of what they have done, they don’t care enough.
It is not that they are all mean-spirited though some surely are. It is that they don’t see any percentage in turning the situation around.
This is especially true of the politicians; for them, following the money has become not just the main thing, but the only thing. The higher the office, the more money they need to be elected, and the more money there is for them when their days in government are through.
The need for dollars – millions, even billions of them — just to get into the game makes for a lethal confection, especially in conjunction with the structural pathologies of our not very democratic electoral system – its duopoly party structure, its first past the post elections, its gerrymandered electoral districts, and so on.
It is as if the incentive structure was engineered to promote gridlock. With so many disincentives to cooperate, it is a wonder that there is any bipartisanship at all.
Add in the animosity Obama elicits in the darkest corners of our far from post-racist society, and it is a perfect storm.
The old slogan “the only solution, revolution” has seemed quaintly anachronistic for decades, and at no time more so, at least in the United States, than in the Age of Obama.
But the time is past due to rethink all that. Now that increasing numbers of people are beginning to see through the miasma that is Obama’s medium and message, the prospects for doing so are at last beginning to improve.
Ironically, there is therefore reason to hope that the change President may yet bring change – just not in the way Obamaphiles used to imagine.
On matters that affect the fraction of the one percent that the Obama Administration exists to serve, the conventional wisdom is at least partly on track as well.
There is, after all, a bipartisan consensus on ends; both parties want to do what is best for their paymasters. However, when it comes to deciding on means, the consensus breaks down – in part.
Capitalist myopia and greed, along with conflicting economic doctrines, driven partly by ideological biases and partly by honest disagreements, leave Democrats and Republicans frequently at odds, among themselves and with each other.
But when there are clear and unequivocal class interests at stake, there is bipartisanship aplenty.
This is why banksters have had carte blanche to loot the economy, why corporations, not people or even major cities like Detroit, get bailed out when they fall into dire financial straits, why everything necessary to keep stock prices high gets done, and why, in general, corporate interests take precedence over peoples’ interests.
When economic elites are of one mind, Democrats and Republicans are in accord, and there is all the bipartisanship anyone could want.
The ruling class is sufficiently united too to keep the functionaries who run our ever-expanding military-national security state complex from breaking free of its grasp by constituting an independent power source of their own.
But this does not keep the generals and spymasters from calling the shots in Congress and the White House. In matters of concern to them, there is bipartisanship to spare.
The Obama Administration’s war on the conditions for democratic governance — above all, its efforts to assure that Americans be uninformed – is of preeminent concern to the military-security state complex. Needless to say, it has broad bipartisan support.
Hence the unflinching backing the leaderships of both parties – and their media flunkies — accord to Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, as they go after Edward Snowden, arguably the greatest whistle-blower in American history.
Snowden is guilty only of embarrassing our “yes, we scan” President, Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and of course the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA and the countless other government agencies that make a mockery of the idea of the rule of law.
A government under law that abides by the spirit of the laws was what the authors of our Constitution proclaimed, even as they supported or permitted slavery and the extermination of the indigenous peoples of North America.
Despite their hypocrisies and inconsistencies, their vision inspired the experiment in government of, by and for the people that Abraham Lincoln would later exalt.
That experiment has never been easy. Just with respect to slavery and its consequences, it took a Civil War and a hundred years of struggle for anything like political equality or equal justice under law to be approximated.
In time, however, the vision of our republic’s founders was more or less realized.
Now, though, on the transparently fatuous pretext of fighting terrorism, our bipartisan rulers want to turn back these basic liberal and democratic achievements.
Snowden’s revelations threaten their ambitions, and that they cannot abide.
This is also what explains their assault on WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange, and the shameful show trial of Bradley Manning.
It has gotten so bad that there is no longer any point even in remarking sarcastically on how the University of Chicago once entrusted Obama to teach Constitutional Law. That would be almost as pointless as going on about the Drone President’s Nobel Prize for peace.
The man has done his best to undo the Constitutional protections that were our glory even in imperialism’s vilest moments.
As the Vietnam War raged, we Americans could at least take solace in the fact that the first, fifth and especially the fourth Amendments protected us; that we could count on free speech, due process and freedom from “unreasonable” searches and seizures.
Today instead we have a bipartisan consensus that none of that really matters. It is hard to believe, but it is happening nevertheless.
* * *
Rare are the Democrats who will challenge the President on this account, except in the mildest of ways. There is ample evidence from polling data that the American people are appalled by the extent of government surveillance. But, within the political class, there is only scant resistance and most of it comes from the libertarian fringes of the GOP.
Nevertheless, a vote last week to defund the NSA’s phone data collection program failed by only eleven votes. But for intense White House lobbying and the combined efforts of the leaderships of both parties, it would almost certainly have passed.
Is this a harbinger of a new bipartisanship, a union of anti-Obama Republicans and backbench Democrats fed up with the Administration’s lackadaisical attitude towards civil liberties?
It is not impossible; there are certainly plenty of voters ready to say “enough!” to Big Brother and his wars, and not all of them usually vote for Democrats.
But don’t count on it. When push comes to shove, Democrats will rally around their Commander-in-Chief, no matter how unpopular his policies may be, and they will lack the courage to stand up to their party’s leadership. As for Republicans, even if a few of them genuinely do have a libertarian streak, the vast majority of them remain as idiotic and obstinate as ever.
However the vote on defunding the NSA may well be an indicator of something else – of how there are people, many of them, outside the constituencies that traditionally vote Democratic, who can be won over to fighting the real enemy — the fraction of the one percent that owns both political parties and for whom the government and its overblown military and security services work.
That might just be a basis for the radical solutions required genuinely to restore functional governance, and it might also be instrumental for saving what remains of the social and economic progress achieved in the New Deal – Great Society era. It could even be a basis for moving forward again.
Such a development would have very little to do with bipartisanship, bottom up or otherwise. But it could have a great deal to do with bringing democracy to the USA.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).