Why bipartisanship is dead
by David Atkins
Much derision has already been piled on Sally Quinn’s laughable essay decrying the diminished influence of the Georgetown cocktail party circuit as the reason for the decline of bipartisanship in Washington. My brother Dante Atkins and Jonathan Chait both have elegant critiques of her piece. Here's Chait:
The bipartisanship cargo cult in Washington is a rather sad tribe of people that laments the decline of bipartisanship, fails to grasp the larger historic forces that made bipartisanship appear and then disappear, and concludes that the problem is the lack of dinner parties. This is, believe it or not, an extremely common belief in our capital city. Seriously. Hardly a week goes by without somebody blaming partisan polarization on the lack of proper dinner parties or, in an occasional twist, lunch.It's hard to understand why the issue of disappearing bipartisanship is so baffling for most people. There are many structural reasons for it including increased transparency, coordination of interest groups, communications technology that allows for more effective and aggressive lobbying, and an ever-increasing influence of money in politics.
Quinn’s essay follows the general contours of this genre, but she adds her own uniquely mortifying touches. Her mourning of the decline of the Georgetown dinner party sweeps together such disparate trends as the appearance of a Kardashian at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Citizens United, hard times at newspapers, and the appearance on the scene of “25-year-old bloggers.” The result of all these baffling developments is that Quinn now has to have dinner with actual friends and not just people using each other for access to power:
But by far the biggest is that the bipartisanship of the mid-20th century was a special artifact of the uneasy alliance between traditional urban liberal tribes and religious Dixiecratic populists in the South and Midwest. As I've written before, FDR was quite able to aggressively take on the financial and corporate interests of his time with a broad coalition. But he couldn't pass an anti-lynching law without destroying his support base, and he was all too willing to institute the Japanese internment camps. In other words, FDR could take on the power of big money with ease, but he couldn't take on the power of Big Racism.
The result of this dynamic was an uneasy bipartisanship between otherwise competing interests. Men like Strom Thurmond would vote for "socialist" policies as long as only whites got the benefits.
The advent of the Civil Rights movement marked the beginning of the end of bipartisanship. As tax dollars were increasingly seen as going toward non-whites, Dixiecrats became Republicans and allies of big business interests. Similar dynamics occurred with anti-Hispanic sentiment in the West. All the religious fervor that had been reserved for progressive social justice issues by the "Progressive" movement in the late 19th century (which included, by the way, quite conservative ideas like the prohibition of alcohol: late 19th century progressives would have strongly opposed modern liberals on issues like marijuana legalization alone...) flipped to socially conservative issues. The women's equality movement only added further fuel to the socially conservative patriarchal fire.
At this point it was easy and natural for the racist culture warriors to align completely with the corporatists. The need for uneasy alliances disappeared. The rationale for men like Strom Thurmond to support New Deal policies and chat about them at cozy cocktail parties disappeared. The battle lines were set. The competing interest groups became neatly and sharply aligned, with only Ron Paul style libertarians having issues that cross party lines. If there's any hope for bipartisan coalitions, it lies in Ron Paul voters. But there's frankly not enough of them, and their ideas make the Washington cocktail crowd deeply uncomfortable.
Ironically, insofar as "bipartisanship" exists, it lies within the Democratic coalition itself. With the entire South and much of the Midwest lost for generations, Democrats were forced to turn to the traditional Republican base of financial elites like the Rockefellers in New York. Neither FDR nor Obama Democrats have been able to stand up to Wall Street money and the racist South simultaneously. FDR's choice was to hold the South while taking on the power of big money. With America making the proper moral choice to begin the end of racial and sex-based discrimination in the 1960s Democrats lost the racist and sexist vote, leaving them little choice but to stand up to the racists while creating a compromise coalition with the power of big money (particularly in a post-Powell Memo world.)
Nowadays, "bipartisanship" has come to mean in media parlance the small group of technocratic neoliberal elites who come to agreement on pro-austerity policies that misguidedly cut wages and social services in the interest of reinflating asset bubbles. It's the Simpson-Bowles "consensus." The problem is that while those ideas are quite popular among comfortable elites in Washington and newspaper pundits making six-figure salaries, they're distinctly unpopular with most Americans. They also don't work to do anything but destroy economies, as the failed austerity experiments in Europe are showing. Which means that "bipartisanship" on that front is both a fool's errand and a deeply destructive feature to be avoided.
Bipartisanship is frankly dead. And there's nothing that Sally Quinn, Tom Friedman, Linda Parks or any of the other bipartisan fetishists out there can do about it now. It will only come back when society has made enough progress against racism and sexism to allow it to return.