American bipartisanship

2009-02-27

in Politics, Rants

Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald has written a piece about the myth that Americans want bipartisanship. While the tone is a bit strident, it does make some good points. Partly, it comes back to the issue of how political systems fundamentally (and necessarily) constrain the expression of voter preferences. The zones of intersection between what voters want and how they are able to express those desires are always of interest, when considering the politics of democratic societies.

Another tricky aspect of this is the need democracies have for a credible opposition. Even if you feel strongly that one party or another should be in power in the US or Canada, you generally don’t want the other leading party to be a complete shambles. If they are, they don’t have the ability to hold the government to account – a role that is often more important than the generation of a competing ideological stance.

When it comes to the United States, it is actually a great shame that the excesses of the Republican party have become so extreme: for instance, their rejection of science, growing xenophobia, obsession with tax cuts at the expense of fiscal responsibility, etc, etc, etc. If they were a party with a platform worth respectfully disagreeing with, the political situation in the United States would be a much more honest and admirable one.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

mek February 27, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Glenn does get a little terse, but only because he has been yelling from the rooftops for years now. One major point he makes is that the USA is completely lacking a progressive opposition – someone to actually hold the Democrats accountable when they fail to deliver on major promises (FISA, healthcare, states’ secrets privilege, opposing Bush in any way from 2006-2008, etc etc). His program Accountability Now is largely that, and I have to commend him for being so much more than just a blogger in that respect. Canada is very fortunate to have the NDP and Greens presenting new ideas and criticizing bad policy.

oleh February 28, 2009 at 7:36 am

“Canada is very fortunate to have the NDP and Greens presenting new ideas and criticizing bad policy”

Canada is not so fortunate to have Parliament run by the rules of party discipline,

A main problem, perhaps the main problem, with the Canadian model is party the pre-eminence of party discipline within Parliament. It is the expectation that our elected members will vote as a bloc with their party. This extends to the tendency to support or oppose policies , bills or ideas not on the basis of their merit , but rather on whether the proponet of the idea is of your party or in opposition to your party,

I feel there is much we within the Canadian Parliamentary system could learn about the American experience of bipartisanship.

Tristan February 28, 2009 at 10:14 am

I think the conditions for meaningful democracy are not met by the Canadian system. I don’t have any original reasons for asserting this, but for example the electing of a party rather than a representative is perhaps the most stinging. When I visited the ontario legislature, an NDP speaker was laughed off the floor for bringing up concerns of her constituents – this isn’t what you are suppose to do in our parliaments, in which a disproportionate amount of power is inculcated in the cabinet and ultimately, a single person. It seems to me quite unlikely that one person could both be a benevolent, democratic leader, and rise up through those ranks which make you eligible for being exactly that. It seems the virtues required for becoming and being leader contradict each other.

This is why hereditary monarchy has always been appealing to me – because it offers the possibility to raise something as leader, who would have no concern for the gain of power, for increasing their power, and no concern for increasing their own standard of living (because they are already royalty). Their only concern would be making the right political decisions.

No one considers monarchy to be a real solution to the problems of democracy producing a tyranny of the elite. It is difficult to know what another solution would be.

R.K. February 28, 2009 at 11:46 am

Bobby Jindal (aside from being an exorcist) speaks to Americans as though he is talking to an especially stupid child:

Bobby Jindal, the Exorcist

mek March 5, 2009 at 5:49 am

oleh, I agree that party discipline, combined with our first-past-the-post election system, we have an unfortunate situation where the attitude and makeup of our parliament can be utterly radical and unrepresentative of the people. The BC Liberal government which had a total opposition of 2 NDP comes to mind. As a federal Green party member, I appreciate this more than most.

I don’t see party discipline as a unique problem, though, or a major one. If we moved to proportional representation, it would be encouraged even further, as coalitions with significant discipline would be required to maintain confidence. I believe that we elect representatives for a reason, and that government by referendum is a bad idea – our representatives have the right and the privilege to vote their conscience, and that may include voting with their party against the interests of their representatives.

In the USA, the two party system ensures that a huge portion of the population has no voice at all, and that the dominant political culture is sycophantic and “centrist” to the point of absurdity, and furthermore easily controlled by the media. Moreover, nobody exhibits “party discipline” to the extreme that the Republican party does. Their party discipline even extends to an unwillingness to criticize nutcases like Rush Limbaugh.

Ultimately I will characterize my feelings as such: If characters like Joe Lieberman are “progressive bipartisans” then to hell with bipartisanship.

oleh March 5, 2009 at 8:48 am

I think it was Churchill who said something about democracy being an awful system, but it is the best system we have.

Tristan, I did find your comment about hereditary monarchy interesting and at first blush appealing. One problem is that those in a hereditary monarchy, with which necessarily there comes a lot of entitlements, may have a difficult time relating to most of the populace who do not have those entitlements. Another problem is that for us to feel engaged in a process or a society, feeling that we have some “say” helps. In a democracy, that “say” is the vote and the opportunity to influence the votes of others. I still prefer democracy, but recognize the limitation that you describe.

I very much enjoy casting my vote.

mek, your comment that proportional representation may encourage even more party discipline was interesting. I had not thought of your concern. One of the the votes that I was most excited to cast in this decade was in favour of the mixed proportional representation system. I had thought it was a way to help loosen the party discipline or limits on democracy that we now have.

. March 31, 2009 at 12:07 pm

From Détente to Taunts
Obama’s promise of post-partisanship is almost completely gone.
By John Dickerson
Posted Monday, March 30, 2009, at 7:01 PM ET

Once upon a time, the Obama administration tried hard to show it listened to Republican ideas. Two months ago, when Congress was debating the stimulus bill, presidential aides pointed to tax cuts in the legislation that Republicans had requested (even though lots of Democrats asked for the same tax cuts). They said Minority Whip Eric Cantor had given them the idea of tracking stimulus spending online (even though they were already planning to do that).

. May 9, 2009 at 4:22 pm

The perils of unpopular populism
Posted by: Economist.com | WASHINGTON

POLITICAL commentators are prone to imagining that their own preferred policies and pet issues are also the keys to political success for the party crafty enough to adopt them. So common is this delusion that it’s acquired a name: the Pundit’s Fallacy. But as the ongoing civil war on the right reminds us, this particular form of cognitive bias can affect the grassroots as easily as the chattering classes. To the frustration of Republican reformers—and the bemusement of Democratic observers—there seems to be substantial disagreement among Republicans, the base no less than the leadership, about whether the party has a serious image problem requiring drastic measures, or whether, as the Black Knight might say, it’s just a flesh wound!

One reason for this may be that, as Gary Andres observes at the Weekly Standard today, and as ideologues sometimes forget, many voters simply don’t conceive electoral politics as a contest between liberal and conservative philosophies of government, but primarily as a choice between individuals who may be personally competent or incompetent, trustworthy or corrupt. Among these voters, Mr Andres suggests, the problem is not (as moderates aver) that the party is seen as too extreme or (as conservatives insist) that Republicans need to more clearly distinguish themselves from Democrats, but that the current set of Republican standard bearers are seen as venal and inept. That’s awkward for party leadership if true: An ideological problem can be fixed by moving to the right or the centre as needed; a personnel problem can only be solved by moving out. Which, one imagines, strengthens the incentive for them to conclude there’s no problem.

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