In the face of today's polarized, partisan environment, with the country's political leadership caught between spasms of incompetence and arrogance, many are nostalgic for the days of yore when, the story goes, moderate centrists worked together and governed through bipartisan cooperation.
The problem is, this vision of centrist leadership is mostly bullshit. Bipartisan cooperation has rarely been the product of bipartisan people. Rather, bipartisan legislation has historically been the result of numerous factions within and across parties fighting for everything and taking what they can get. Our federal system was designed, not for bipartisan cooperation, but for multi-partisan conflict, bargaining, and compromise so that nobody gets everything they want. Indeed, bipartisanship, is the problem in that all political conflict has been squeezed into two alternatives, as opposed to the loose coalitions of liberals and conservatives, populists and progressives, that have historically existed within both parties. This is the first generation of Americans to live under a true two-party system, and its weaknesses are glaring.
James Madison had it right when he expressed the virtues of diversity in government. If you "take in a greater variety of parties and interests" Madison wrote of the proposed federal republic, "you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." Today, our republic is vastly more politically diverse than Madison could have ever imagined, yet our political leadership reflects none of that diversity, with elite factions having co-opted and consolidated power within a homogenous two-party duopoly. We are a nation of queer Latino gun rights advocates, evangelical environmentalists, and military-trained feminist activists, but in our choices for party leadership, our best-case scenario is often hoping for mere stupidity over evil.
Moreover, Madison recognized a crucial feature of political competition that even many experts today overlook. Voters base their political decisions on who they are, not what they think. That is, political competition reflects the expression of social identity and membership in particular groups, not a cost-benefit analysis of policy consequences. Yes, as a critic of my own left-leaning ideologues I have argued that Democrats ought not be captive to the "identity politics" of Islamist apologetics and "intersectionality" but in saying that, I'm explicitly advocating for an identity of "democracy politics" over those alternatives. In short, all politics is identity politics.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the health care debate. People are not deciding whether they support or oppose the Republican Party's repeal of Obamacare based on the consequences it will have on the health care system. Sure, they may talk themselves into believing that, but honestly, go online and look at what your friends are saying, and it will become clear that people support or oppose the bill because they are Republicans or Democrats, and they are Republicans or Democrats because of the social groups that express their identities through those partisan lenses. This is also true within the divisions in the Republican Party. For those on the right, the logic is something like: Conservatives hate Obamacare, and Medicaid is socialism, and we shouldn't encourage dependence; on the other hand, some have religious obligations to the poor, and children, and others who rely on these services, and this would be a big change, and conservatives don't like change. Almost the opposite logic holds for those on the left. It's about core values more than consequences.
Yet when we allow our identities to become too narrowed, ignoring the diversity within ourselves, we suppress our own inner contradictions that, when examined, can actually deepen our social perspective.
For example, I spent the Fourth of July in a public place, drinking Mexican lager and eating tubes of German meat with friends and strangers, enjoying conversation about work, kids, sports, politics, and yes, even the forbidden topic of religion. My night ended in a backyard with people in tears, and true, deep, thoughtful questions about humanity, and what the hell it all means. Good wine will do that. Nobody changed anyone else's mind, but we knew each other better, and our hearts were moved. We were still the same partisan jackasses the next day, but I'd like to think we had a greater appreciation of our shared destiny.
What we need is not bipartisanship, but fellowship. That means getting together and enjoying the great diversity of this country, and all the things that we have in common. We are a pretty badass bunch in all our multitudes. We can embrace our partisanship, fight for what we believe in, and work to convince others, but still respect the fact that Team America requires that we uphold the basic rules of our democratic heritage and identity, and the bargaining and compromise that come with it, or we lose something of ourselves.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor firstname.lastname@example.org. Write a letter to the editor email@example.com.