Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Myth of Bipartisanship

As Lemieux suggests (and as he's stated more directly elsewhere), the whole idea of New Deal and Great Society programs passing with bipartisan support entails a willful misunderstanding of the politics of those times. First, the post-civil rights party realignment completely shifted the playing field--before this both parties had both pro and anti-civil rights members, based largely but not entirely on region. Bipartisanship took place in this context because it was incredibly difficult to get all members of either party to agree with each other. Politicians had more in common with members of the other party who were from their region than with their fellow party members from across the country. Johnson could pass civil rights legislation with bipartisan support because northern Republicans and northern Democrats would vote for it, even if southern Democrats and some western Republicans would not.

Conservative commentators misinterpret this history to talk about how no legislation should pass without bipartisan support, but partisanship meant something quite different in 1935 or 1965.

Moreover, the one unique thing in American history about the modern Republican Party is its nihilism. Never before have we had a political party want to destroy the other side simply for the sake of its destruction, offering absolutely nothing or no alternatives in return. That doesn't mean that political parties haven't hated each other before--the Whigs pretty much only agreed that they hated Jacksonians, but in reality that led to intensive intra-party infighting. This is a unified opposition that has only one goal: destroy Obama. The closest thing we've seen to this in the past was pre-Civil War southern fireeating Democrats. But despite their northern lackeys like James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, Franklin Pierce, and Stephen Douglas, ultimately this extremist wing was dominated by southerners. This eventually tore the Democratic Party apart. The Republicans are definitely not in this position.