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Who Cares About Bipartisanship? February 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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In the debate over the stimulus package passed recently by Congress, Obama pursued a bipartisan strategy for generating support. He had dinner with right-wing pundits, worked with Republican House members to pre-emptively include conservative-pleasing tax cuts in the bill, reached out to John McCain for his help in solving our problems, spent more time with Republicans than Democrats in crafting the bill, and supported compromises that weakened the bill when it reached the Senate. In return for reaching across the aisle he got nothin’. Zero votes in the house, 3 votes in the Senate, and lots of bad press for his failure to convince Republicans on this desperately needed boost to the economy that is supported by many conservative economists. Of course, in the end, Obama got exactly what he wanted-a stimulus package roughly the size that he asked for in the beginning. But even his administration is admitting that the zeal for bipartisan support caused them to lose control of the debate.

The interesting philosophical issue to emerge from the debate over the stimulus package is the nature and value of bipartisanship. It is taken as an article of faith by many in the media and the public that bi-partisanship is a good thing. A plurality of voters are now Independents suggesting that allegiance to a party is undesirable. And it seems to be a favorite fantasy of the “Broderites” in the media (after David Broder the long-time political columnist and shill for bi-partisanship) that if we could only be bipartisan enough we could arrive at a universally-acceptable solutions to problems. And in one sense of course it is necessary. In a two party system you sometimes have to compromise to get any legislation passed. But why praise it so highly and make a fetish of it if it is something that politicians have to reluctantly do anyway?

What exactly is being promoted when people praise bipartisanship and does it have more than pragmatic value?

 One version of bipartisanship is centrism–the assumption that moderate ideas are always best and being in the center of competing ideas is somehow inherently good. Many people claim that if you are pissing off both sides then you must be doing something right.

But moderation may not be appropriate in an extreme situation that calls for drastic action, a situation we find ourselves in now. Extreme ideas by their very nature violate conventions and habits. But when you have a deep problem, those conventions and habits ought not have some sort of inherent authority, if they are in part responsible for the problem in the first place. And why think that moderate ideas have a better chance of being true than extreme ideas?

Furthermore, if the centrist thinks the extreme ideas are bad ideas, positioning oneself in the center and taking a little bit from one and a little bit from the other is unlikely to produce a better idea. More importantly, if the opposing ideas are in logical conflict only one can be true. Taking a true idea and leavening it with a false idea does not somehow improve the true idea. It just produces incoherence.

The negotiations over the economic stimulus showed the problems with centrism. The Republicans had nothing but more tax cuts and antipathy toward government on their agenda, which have already failed and are generally acknowledged to be ineffective. When one side is crazy, trying to position yourself in the center will not improve a policy. It will likely weaken it to the point where it becomes ineffective.

Of course, taking two incompatible ideas and finding a third way is the essence of creativity. But there is no reason to think this third alternative is a matter of watering down the extremes or sticking with conventions. It is usually a point that lies outside the continuum that links the extremes.

Happily, there are other forms of bipartisanship which I will discuss in subsequent posts since this is already too long.

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1. More on Bipartisanship « Philosophy On The Mesa - February 22, 2009

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