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On ‘bipartisanship’

| Friday, October 3, 2014

In response to the volatile political climate of last semester, the term “bipartisanship” has played an increased role in Notre Dame’s political discourse throughout the first few months of the academic year. This idea of cooperation and communication also has a ubiquitous role in the national political conversation, a favorite phrase of near every member of Congress. Yet, I think bipartisanship has become a political “safe haven” and, at times, represents no more than a buzzword that scores political points. Bipartisanship is hailed as a rare political success in an age of toxic disagreement without consideration of its true meaning. While I might not wholeheartedly agree with the late George Carlin when he said, “bipartisanship usually means that a larger than usual deception is being carried out,” I believe it is important to diligently examine this idea of bipartisanship, in theory and practice, in order to understand its proper role in our political discourse.

Before understanding bipartisanship, it is crucial to understand the two-party political system. Both parties, which I will henceforth refer to as the Left and Right, are derived from two ideological frameworks that incorporate a number of philosophical and metaphysical arguments (the type of things Plato and Aristotle argued about). Both perspectives incorporate an understanding and valuation of what is best for society and individuals, as well as, most importantly, two different understandings of the proper role of government. These two underlying viewpoints establish two vastly different philosophical perspectives that share some overlap, but are mostly mutually exclusive.

The Founding Fathers, wary of the implications of this ideological split, developed an elaborate democratic system of government that mediates these opposing viewpoints and ensures that neither can accumulate too much political power. In this way, the democratic system imposes an incentive for politicians to effectively communicate in order to pass legislation and policy. Despite Washington’s best efforts to prove otherwise, there is an inherently “bipartisan” component of our system of government that motivates compromise, concession and merit based debate. This theoretical process of bipartisanship in government demonstrates the proper role of bipartisanship in politics.

Bipartisanship is a political process. It is a process that helps cultivate more effective policy solutions, attempts to ensure implementation of such policies and furthers the ends of a democratic system. Again, bipartisanship is a political process; a way of conducting the business of public policy. From this understanding of bipartisanship, we can now discern the way in which “bipartisanship” is misunderstood and misused.

Bipartisanship is not a political principle. It neither guarantees policy will advance the common good nor does it preserve any fundamental principles of American government. Bipartisanship belongs among terms like “checks and balances” and “separation of powers,” rather than among the ranks of “freedom” and “liberty.” Often, I would argue that bipartisanship is treated as a political principle, an immortal ideal of good government, as opposed to an effective political process.

There is nothing inherently virtuous about a bipartisan policy. Again, bipartisan policy simply refers to the political process by which such a policy came about, speaking nothing to the content and effectiveness of the given policy. Bipartisan policy should be subject to the same line of questioning and critique as any other policy. I think this is especially relevant when supposed “bipartisan legislation” passed by Congress is more aligned with a PR strategy than the process outlined by the likes of Madison and Adams.

Further, when one considers the nature of bipartisan policy and the present nature of the ideological perspective of the Left and Right, it seems that bipartisan policy solutions must represent some level of contradiction. The Left and Right are diametrically opposed on most questions of public policy, including broad understandings of the purpose of government. I believe policy that seeks, as an end, to mediate a point between two polar opposites will be ineffective and even contradictory. Good public policy does not necessarily fall in the space between two opposite viewpoints and often such a space is a political wasteland (consider a middle ground policy on the size of the federal government). Compromise is better used as a means by which a majority can ensure their legislation be put into action rather than as an initial aim of policy.

Bipartisanship is an important political process that recognizes differences across the political system and establishes a way by which such a situation can be managed. It also provides a means by which legislation can be passed and put into action. However, bipartisanship is not a political principle and should not be an aim of policy solutions. I think it is important to recognize the virtue and value of a bipartisanship as a means of conducting governance, but be wary of policy or politicians that seek to establish bipartisanship as a principle, because, per Carlin’s warning, a deception is probably being carried out.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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