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More on Bipartisanship February 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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I  recently argued that if bipartisanship means centrism—positioning oneself in the center between competing, more extreme ideas—then bipartisanship has little value, aside from its practical value in getting legislation passed. Positioning oneself between two bad ideas or between one bad idea and one good idea will not lead to a better idea.

But I think proponents of bipartisanship are making a different sort of claim. Some appeals to bipartisanship seem to assume that partisans represent political positions that are excessively self interested, and that political negotiations should be about getting participants to see past their self-interest. On this view, partisans are focused on gaining power, mobilizing support, and are often willing to use deception and other modes of persuasion that prevent disinterested discussion. Bipartisanship, by contrast, allegedly aspires to impartiality and the common good.

But the fact that an idea falls outside the range of centrist political positions has nothing to do with whether its proponents are excessively power-hungry or self-interested. Partisans of course do seek political power, but if one is a partisan because one thinks her ideas better serve the common good than those of her opponents, then there is nothing wrong with focusing on attaining power or mobilizing. Centrists want to achieve power as well and for the very same reasons—they think their ideas are better than their opponents. Why is an idea that is in the middle of the political spectrum more disinterested than one that is outside the conventional wisdom?

Of course one might argue that a political position in the center of the political spectrum will have more adherents (if we think of the center as a mean or a median). Thus, a centrist policy might serve the interests of more people. But this doesn’t make the policy disinterested—it just serves the self-interest of the majority. Furthermore, this could not be a defense of bipartisanship, but a defense of majority rule. The party with the majority gets to set policy regardless of the opposition if it has the votes.

In order to make sense of appeals to bipartisanship, I think we have to define it as an appeal to shared values. A bipartisan policy is one that is based on values that one shares with political opponents, despite disagreements over implementation or emphasis. And such an approach to politics has value because, when policies are based on widely shared values, they can be implemented successfully since motives are in alignment, there are incentives to over-look differences, and more people are willing to buy-in to the policy. This is, arguably, what Obama is trying to achieve with his open attempts to reach across the aisle.

One way of conceptualizing current political realities is that as Americans we have common values and shared goals but disagree on which policies would accomplish them. But I’m not sure this is the right way to understand current political realities. It may be that with regard to the role of government, the relative importance of public vs. private goods, and who deserves a given distribution of resources, liberals share nothing with conservatives. It seems that conservatives would rather have no education than government-supported education, and no prosperity if it means management of the economy by government. Modern conservatism is not just skeptical of excessive government power. It seeks to end effective government if their recent opposition to the stimulus package is an indicator of their philosophy. The infamous quote by Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform–”I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”—has become mainstream Republican doctrine.

With an opposition like this bipartisanship has no point—any attempt to reach across the aisle will be a compromise of vision, a sell-out, and another step in America’s decline.

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