The Inanities of “Bipartisanship” and “Governing From the Center”

Ben Stein made some provocative comments on the Sunday morning talk shows recently, suggesting that Barack Obama was the “ideal” GOP candidate. As laughable as that claim is on its face, I think the reasoning behind it has a lot to say about our current political culture.

First, the laughability. Of course Obama would never run as a member of the GOP. He’s a Democrat! But of course Ben Stein knows that. Here’s what he means:

Since the election of 2010, he is clearly moving in the direction of the Republican Party. He has completely signed on to the Republican position on tax cuts and kicking the deficit can down the road.

Long since he signed onto the Bush position on the war in Afghanistan, he’s now swearing he will do something about government spending, even if it angers his most basic constituency, the government employee unions.

To this one could add Obama’s support for indefinite detention, signing statements, giving up on closing Guantánamo, and secret relinquishing of the public option to get insurers to back health care reform.

In effect, Stein argues that Obama has moved so far to the right as to become, for all intents and purposes, a moderate Republican. If he were to switch parties, he would win re-election by a landslide, as no Democrat would oppose him and there are no Republicans nearly as popular to challenge him.

All right, I find the last two parts a bit much, but you get the point: that Obama is not a real, full, or true Democrat, and much more like a moderate Republican.

Obama a Republocrat?
Now the outrageousness. Is that claim really so outlandish? Not if you take the President at his word with regard to his claims to bipartisanship and aiming to govern from the center.

What is bipartisanship? Luckily, we have the emergence of a new chatting and ruling class to tell us. It’s motto is “a pox on both parties!” and its goal is the collapse of political differences in the name of pragmatism (“getting things done”).

Along the way, these folks have a job to do. They have to convince you that the principles you believe in, those that might have motivated you to vote for this candidate over another, are illusory, trivial, meaningless, or even dangerous, as no political progress is possible so long as you hold them.

This is the mantra of “third way” or “no labels” movements. They’d like you to believe that they have found the political philosophers’ stone that turns the dross of partisanship into the pure gold of legislation.

And all you have to do is forget you were ever a member of any party or believed in any damn thing at all.

Ending Partisanship by Killing Principles
They trumpet the end of bickering and the beginning of “getting things done.” Cliches like “working together” and “reaching out across the aisle” are similar ultrasonic whistles, alongside the ubiquitous “compromise.”

Of course all this operates by way of a particular sleight of hand. Partisanship must be detached from any association with principles or “principled” and instead tied immutably in the electoral conscience with intransigence and gridlock.

If you’re a Republican, it’s called obstructionism. If you’re a Democrat, it’s called idealism. The new mavens of civility accord each of these positions moral and political equivalence precisely in order to distinguish themselves from the “partisan” herd.

Irony? In order to carve out identities for themselves as the new conciliators, restorers of civility, and bringers of harmony, they collapse the difference between the parties and devalue what each party stands for.

Lost is any notion of a principled partisanship, proud of principles, and fully willing to compromise, but as a means, not an end. Lost is the notion that partisanship contributes to the political culture by providing clear boundaries (that any rational person is free to question, modify, or reject) without which our conversation becomes meaningless chatter about the best way to accomplish goals that keep changing because our ideals keep changing.

Or worse: change depending on the person who’s telling you they have no ideals whatsoever other than “getting things done.” This is why I think one of the most insidious forms of ideology is the one that pretends to be its opposite.

A Fatal Flaw
And here lies what, for me, is the fatal flaw of our new “centrists.” On the one hand, bipartisanship is held out as this great political ideal and virtue. This suggests that pragmatism ought to trump party differences.

Let’s say we all agree and we give these new heroes the parade they demand. But if this is the case, then why should a voter pull a level for a D as opposed to an R (or a G)? If our elected officials truly believe party differences are getting in the way of “getting things done,” then don’t they also relinquish any right to run, during election time, as representatives of any side other than:

The middle?

The great, big, vast, vacuous and meaningless middle? Here there are no inconveniences like ideals to reconcile with the passion for accomplishing anything at all, so long as it’s something. Here, ideals don’t just corrupt the finished product, they make it impossible, so out the window they go.

This is the political model of new “no labels” civility: the politician who denounces partisanship and works to collapse the effective differences between the parties but asks, at election time, that you remember what jersey they’re wearing and vote accordingly.

“Vote for the candidate who’s better at collapsing the political differences that their electoral fortunes depend on.”

So what’s the answer? May I suggest a politics doesn’t take an antiseptic approach to partisanship but embraces it, and doesn’t oppose it in knee-jerk fashion to civility?

One that speaks from principle, rather than against it? And one that demonstrates, by example, that you don’t have to check your values at the door in order to get things done in and for this great nation of ours?

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On This Martin Luther King, Jr Day

Not sure why, but today’s day of remembrance brought back memories of the time a holiday was first proposed honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. some thirty years ago (wow).

I was in high school at the time, on the cusp of the biggest social change of my lifetime, between the 1970s and 1980s. In the 70s, I remember being taught by hippies to love music, the earth, and one another.

We learned about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and even got some indirect instruction about homophobia. I remember the day vividly. We were seated in our 2nd grade class, and someone derisively called someone else “gay.” We all laughed.

Then our teacher smiled, and asked everybody to come sit down on the floor next to her (she was beautiful and I was always first). Then she asked us if we knew what “gay” meant and someone said “yes, a really dumb person.”

She smiled again and looked at me. I beamed. “Gay means somebody who loves men,” I said. She corrected me. Then she turned to the class and asked “why in Heaven” it was considered an insult to love someone of the same sex.

We were stunned. Nobody had ever questioned things like that before. In fact, many of us had heard our own parents use similar, if not identical slurs. What was she saying – that our own parents were wrong?

I remember going home and checking this new information with my parents, who seemed a little concerned about my question, but confirmed its accuracy. Wow. “So is it like being racist?”

I don’t remember their answer, but I remember mine.

Then, in the 1980s, something changed. Reagan was elected, and there was a resurgence in national pride. Interestingly, though, this came alongside a real coarsening in our civic dialogue. Almost overnight, Russians, the poor, and anyone associated with labor unions became the enemy.

My teachers began to question out loud the morality or efficacy of social support systems, and the term “Welfare queen” began to enjoy widespread currency. PETCO was dissolved by Reagan and people cheered. Some years later Reagan made his “we begin bombing in five minutes” remark and it seemed like I was the only one furious.

I remember my 10th grade history teacher bringing in a former student who was one of the first people into Grenada. He told us how he landed, and faced no resistance from people he derided as gay in multiple ways throughout his presentation. The class, and my teacher, laughed and appaluded.

I think that was the first time I had ever been so furious I wanted to cry and throw up at the same time (which I almost did, in the Nurse’s office). Somehow the America I grew up in got replaced by a colder, meaner, and far more violent one (Bernhard Goetz was another hero I could never quite fathom).

It was in the mix of all these things that a holiday for Dr. King was proposed and met its first resistance. I remember teachers and parents saying out loud it was a waste of taxpayer dollars, that Dr. King had never held public office, and that “you can’t force your politics onto others.”

I realized that I would need arguments to support my position, and that’s when I began seriously studying for me instead of for school or someone else.

I argued back that this was a step towards healing the horrible history of race relations in this country, which prompted some (teachers, parents, and peers) to look at me and say, “what are you talking about?”

Sigh.

I said the holiday isn’t trying to “legislate a political point of view” but advance the promise of the Constitution. I was met then, as now, with cries about the free speech rights of conservatives and “playing the race card.”

As bad as this was for my social life and self-esteem, though, it’s nothing compared to what Dr. King faced, or any of the other folks who lost friends, careers, or their own lives to the cause of Civil Rights.

Maybe it’s recent events in Arizona, the state that was a hotbed of opposition to the federal holiday, that brought this all back for me. Maybe it’s having an African-American in the White House, or the way politics has become more contentious than I can ever recall.

At least now I know I’m not crazy, just a 70s kid. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone.