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Bipartisanship: Not All That It’s Cracked Up to Be

Let’s stipulate, as lawyers would say, that, in politics, the best can be and often is the enemy of the good; that those who aim too high, can and often do end up worse off than need be.

Let’s stipulate too that in our duopolistic electoral system, the good can be and often is the enemy of the “barely good enough” or “the better than we had before.” Thanks to Democratic pusillanimity and Republican obduracy, slight improvements are often all that lie within our reach. It can therefore be unwise to dismiss them out of hand, their shortcomings notwithstanding.

Let’s also acknowledge the obvious: that Democrats are the lesser evil party ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Whenever there are candidates running for high elective offices that are worth supporting in their own right, not just because the alternative is worse, they are many times more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.

Progressives have, for the most part, accepted this sad fact of life. They feel that they have no other choice, and they are probably right. Perhaps this will change in the near future, but it hasn’t yet.

However, there can be and often are good reasons to vote for Democrats who would not be worth supporting but for the fact that their opponents are much worse. Because Trump was hardly the only clear and present danger on the ballot in the 2020 election, Democratic candidates fitting that description were unusually abundant then. For proponents of lesser evil voting, it was a Golden Age.

Cases in which it is morally and politically necessary to make common cause with Democrats who are emphatically not worth supporting, except for lesser evil reasons, would arise less frequently if the new Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, and his co-thinkers in the Democratic Senate caucus were more steadfastly opposed to letting Mitch McConnell, the former Majority (now Minority) Leader, continue to get his way as much as he still can.

If only he and the others would use the power they won in the November election to crush McConnell and his colleagues. If only Biden would as well. If only they would all stop being, or playing at being, so goddamn nice.

Even without an electoral mandate, except insofar as they do have something like a mandate left over from their victories in 2018, they have the means and, if they are able to remain united, the power. The question is: do they also have the will?

There was some question about that in 2020, but Trump’s sheer awfulness united against him, and motivated the opposition. And so, these days the Donald is no longer eating cheeseburgers at the White House, but at Mar-a-Lago instead.

McConnell is awful too, though not in ways that resonate anywhere near as loudly as Trump. However, they do resonate widely enough for him soon to find himself wishing he were back at his old Kentucky home, should Democrats do the right thing, and hold the line.

McConnell is hardly the most scurrilous Republican on the national scene. But as the leader of the Republican caucus in an evenly divided Senate, he is the most malign. He has demonstrated this time and again. Even now, when stacking the federal judiciary with troglodyte judges is no longer at the top of the conservative to do list, he is still at it, seeking his personal best — or, to put the point more bluntly, his personal worst.

Like most of his fellow Republicans, McConnell is a man worth crossing the street to avoid, notwithstanding the fact that the party he leads is chock full of characters even more loathsome than he.

Indeed, there are plenty more where Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley came from. There are even lunatics of the Marjorie Taylor Greene variety, gun toting nut jobs who belong in padded cells, not Congressional office buildings. Greene, for example, believes every so-called “conspiracy theory” making the rounds; thus, he believes, among much else in the same vein, that the West Coast forest fires last summer were set off from outer space with lasers operated by Jews, that no plane attacked the Pentagon on 9/11, and that the mass shootings of recent years are hoxes, concocted by socialist-liberal conmen in order to discredit gun rights advocates.

It is crazy for Democrats or indeed for anyone with the sense they were born with and a modicum of self-respect to laud the virtues of bipartisan government with such people as these. Perhaps not totally batshit Margorie Taylor Green crazy, but, like the Democrats and their talking heads on the cable networks, crazy enough.

That, on the merits and with only a very few exceptions, what Republican Senators and House members say is not worth taking seriously has been the case for decades. But ever since Trump began calling the shots for the GOP, the situation has deteriorated, and with his landslide defeat (in the popular vote) last November, it seems actually to have gotten qualitatively worse.

How fitting that what was true of Trump himself, that what he said was not worth taking seriously on the merits but only in virtue of the office he held, is now true of the entire Republican Party.

***

That bipartisanship is good for America — that, after Trump, it is our best hope for making America decent again — rests on two assumptions: that the very idea of cooperating “across the aisle” is not inordinately distasteful, and that Democrats and Republicans will always be with us.

The first of these assumptions is plainly untenable. In this instance, Democrats are not the problem; Republicans are. Democratic Party leaders and their media toadies can be infuriating at times, but at least they don’t inspire despair for the human race. Many, maybe most, Republicans inspire precisely that; so do the party’s leaders and major donors.

How else can one feel about people who are willing, even eager, to join together in a personality cult centered on a mentally disturbed conman who holds them – and nearly everybody else he didn’t father or father-in-law – in obvious contempt?

The second assumption, that there will always be Democrats and Republicans, is different. As recently as a month or two ago, that assumption seemed unassailable. But the November election and its aftermath have unsettled both parties profoundly, putting even this bedrock dogma of the American civil religion in doubt.

The Democratic Party is changing, even Joe Biden is changing – for the better – but it is far from clear how deep or extensive these changes have been. This should become clearer in the weeks and months ahead.

On the other hand, it is already clear that, under Trump’s aegis, the Republican Party has suffered a profound and perhaps even mortal wound. What remains unclear for now is what leading Republican politicians and their donors are willing to do about it. This could become clearer in the days ahead.

The emerging but already sizable progressive wing of the Democratic Party has little in common with the party’s mainstream. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom in liberal circles is just the opposite.

This misleading sense of things helps to sustain illusions about the feasibility and desirability of bipartisan politics by obscuring the fact that party unity serves mainly to keep existing power relations within the party intact.

The party’s leaders want, or say they want, to be friends with their Republican rivals; and, for the sake of maintaining good working relations with them, they want to keep these so-called friends close. Being challenged from their left, however, what they need more is, as it were, to keep their enemies closer, just as the Godfather advised.

At this point, it would be unwise to try to confront this problem head on; not so long as the Left remains too weak to prevail. The wise thing for now is to do everything possible to build a Left opposition with the capacity to make this no longer the case.

The Left’s predicament is mitigated somewhat by the fact that, for the time being, Biden’s presidency seems to be unfolding in more progressive ways than nearly all reasonably informed observers thought it would.

Biden has always had a knack for hugging the center line. Early in the seventies, he was a conventional, mainstream liberal; later in the decade, at the dawn of the neoliberal age, as many leading Democrats took a soft right turn, Biden followed suit.

Thus, he transformed himself into the very epitome of the kind of politics that made the eventual emergence of Trumpian politics all but inevitable.

But times change. Can anyone whose head is screwed on right still believe that neoliberal austerity programs are what is needed in a world suffering from gaping inequalities while immersed in health, economic, environmental, and political crises?

Perhaps Marjorie Taylor Greene and others of her ilk could. But they are too focused on their derangements and delusions to care about much else. Their heads are not screwed on right.

Fairly or not, Biden has long been a poster boy for civility. According to press reports, he and McConnell have been, if not besties, then cordial colleagues, perhaps even friends. But that was before Tea Party obduracy won the day, and before Trump Party nastiness.

It was also before there was an organized and aroused Democratic Left, intent one way or another, on changing the Democratic Party radically for the better or else abandoning it altogether.

So perhaps now finally, after nearly five decades in public office, Biden will deviate a tad from the “moderate” tract, doing for the emerging Left opposition what Republicans ought to do but won’t for Democrats generally: lending a hand, as best they can, or else getting the hell out of the way.

Or perhaps not — because there is more than a little truth to the old saw about old dogs not being able to learn new tricks. This is why it would be unwise, to say the least, to let up even slightly on efforts to push Biden to do the right thing. He is a centrist, after all, and going with the flow is what centrist do.

As in that Russian saying that the GOP’s icon for all seasons, Ronald Reagan, America’s first full-fledged neoliberal president, would repeat over and over in his dealings with Mikhail Gorbachev and anyone else who would listen: “trust but verify.”

Meanwhile, the chances of anything good coming out of the perturbations currently riling the Republican Party are practically nil. This is not all Trump’s fault. The problem has been building at least since the Reagan days.

As it turned out, with or without verification, Gorbachev proved reliably trustworthy. It was Reagan and his successors that did not. They were the ones whose claims were most in need of verification.

Reagan promised Gorbachev that if he would allow German reunification to proceed, NATO would not expand to Russia’s borders by adding the Soviet Union’s former Eastern European “satellites” or former Soviet republics to its ranks.

This was a boldfaced lie. Its consequences, still unfolding, keep bringing the Doomsday Clock ever closer to midnight. The danger now is greater than when Trump was still acting out whatever shenanigans he was and may still be up to with Vladimir Putin, and it is far from a sure thing that Biden and his advisors, inveterate Cold Warriors all, will be up to dealing with it.

Keeping the (Cold) War Party down, at least with respect to Russia – China is another story – was one reason why Trump’s 2016 victory was not an unmitigated disaster. Another may well turn out to be the Republican Party’s lack of a future.

Though largely, if not entirely, unintended, these are achievements of great moment. Needless to say, they do not, either separately or together, come close to vindicating Trump or his presidency, but they are not to be despised.

And although on matters dealing with the original Cold War and its consequences, and with the Cold Wars of the future that our military-industrial-national security state complex demands, the Clintons, Goldwater Girl Hillary especially, along with other mainstream Democrats are even worse, nothing can make up for Reagan’s villainy in these regards.

Reagan was America’s Thatcher, its neoliberal epigone. Damn him for that, but neoliberalism can be superseded. Unless all goes exceptionally well, Cold War mongering cannot. We were lucky, especially when the Gipper decided to take on the Evil Empire with such hairbrain schemes as Star Wars.

The Cold War mongerers are back now in full force. Can we stave it off? Will we be lucky again? Time will tell. The one sure thing is that this part of the Reagan legacy will mark the GOP’s identity for as long as that wretched party survives.

Jack L. Warner was reputed to have said: “Jimmy Stewart for president; Ronnie for best friend.” If only Republicans had listened. How much better off we now would be.

Instead, they have just gone from awful to worse than awful. From the Reagan days to now, the GOP’s trajectory has been almost without exception downhill.

***

We are too much in the midst of the chaos now unfolding in their Greater Evil Party precincts to predict what will come next, but, whenever the pundits on cable news and in print media tell us about the prospects for turning the Republican Party back to where it was before Trump or before the Tea Party, I cannot help but think of Freud’s remark on how the goal of psychoanalysis is to transform hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

Replace “hysterical misery” with “Marjorie Taylor Greene insanity” and “ordinary unhappiness” with “old school (Cold War mongering) Republican politics” and his remark is spot on.

But, at this point, saving the Republican Party may be a fool’s errand; the party may be too far gone.

In Freud’s view, psychoanalysis can be useful for treating neuroses, but psychoses lie beyond its power to heal. Future historians may be able to shed some light on when exactly the Republican Party reached an analogous threshold. Perhaps it was in the Tea Party days, or at some key point during the Trump presidency. Perhaps no threshold has yet been crossed. Perhaps there is no threshold at all.

However, I, for one, find it hard to believe that the party Trump broke can be put back together in anything like the way it once was. I think it far more likely that a diminished Trump Party, with or without Trump, will devolve into a Marjorie Taylor Greene and others like her Party, a collection of vile racist imbeciles in which, say, Liz Cheney, the war criminal’s daughter, and others who think like she does – they are all over cable news – will be unable to feel at home.

But who knows? There is a lot of money invested in the status quo, and our economic elites just hate it when their money cannot buy what they want.

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).

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