Sunday, March 28, 2004

Partisanship in the US 

I'm venturing WAY outside my area of technical expertise here, but a comment by Atrios got me thinking this morning:
More generally, I think anyone who preaches the joys of bipartisanship is a fool who has little understanding of how American politics does and should work. Partisanship is a good thing. If the opening position is compromise then the public never receives a healthy debate over the merits of a particular policy. Sometimes I wonder if that's really what members of the Broder school of political analysis really want - to cut the pesky people out of the process.

Of course, well-run government does require that there are a few responsible adults on both sides who can, at the end of the day, come together and iron out their differences. But, bipartisanship is not an end in itself. Democracy requires healthy debate and disagreement.
There's been a lot of political theorizing about the value of deliberation and argument beyond just figuring out how to split the difference (see, notably, Jurgen Habermas's "Theory of Communicative Action", which I only dimly remember at this point). I don't know this body of work all that well, so I don't really want to argue with the idea that there's value in public argument and attempts to convince over and above "getting to yes."

On the other hand, a lot of partisan fighting in the US has little to do with advancing modes of thought or contesting shared norms, and a lot more to do with "team spirit" and the news cycle. Based on anecdotal evidence, I think that the "pesky people" generally realize this as well. I remember from my days working on Capitol Hill what an incredibly positive response speeches and letters promising to "act in a bipartisan manner" would get from my old boss's constituents. As a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, I was aghast to see how much traction a politician could get from declaring herself willing to cross the aisle to cut deals. In all honesty, I still enjoy getting my partisan hackles up as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure I can truly say that this has anything to do with the way I believe politics "should" work.

I guess it depends on what you mean by "partisanship." Political parties in the US are more like brand names than policy-promoting organizations (as they are in many other countries, for better or worse). To the extent that Atrios is equating full-blooded support for a political party with the sort of good-for-the-soul democratic discourse that moves us forward as a people, I'm not convinced he's on the right track.

Let me know what you think.

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