One and a Half Cheers for Bipartisanship

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

April 7, 2009

In a response to Pietro Nivola’s “ In Defense of Partisan Politics,” William Galston warns that increased polarization and partisanship in the United States have more negative consequences than good.

Pietro Nivola is right about partisan politics – as far as he goes. He’s talking about the kind of partisanship that rests, not simply on differences of affiliation and loyalty (though these can run deep), but rather on sharp differences of policy and ideology. It’s hard to deny that these kinds of differences enhance accountability, and recent elections show that the fervor sparked by intense partisanship increases both interest and turnout. There’s an additional argument in favor of polarized partisanship as well: voters report increased confidence in their ability to understand the differences between the parties—and the choices they face.

So what’s not to like? Quite a lot, actually. Partisan polarization means that parties are less likely to seek common ground or to make compromises. The result is often policy oscillation: we move back and forth between polarized positions as control of government shifts. This pattern is clearest for contested cultural issues, especially abortion, but it often makes an appearance in economic issues – taxation, for example – and in international arenas such as arms control. It’s hard to believe that such oscillation promotes either our well being at home or our credibility abroad.

Worse, polarized partisanship creates a climate in which each party is likely to deny any truth or virtue to the other. But because no party has a monopoly on truth or virtue, this mindset all but rules out legislation that draws from the best ideas of both. For example, some people believe that we should enact the kind of universal health insurance Barack Obama has proposed . . . and that we should pay for it by limiting the tax-favored treatment that employer-provided health insurance now enjoys, as John McCain has proposed. Although some members of the administration probably favor this approach (and some Senate Democrats certainly do), polarized partisan politics make it very difficult for them to say so, let alone propose it as a compromise.

There’s a further problem: partisan polarization tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Democrats feel sure that Republicans will only obstruct their legislative agenda, why allow them to participate in drafting it? (The recent stimulus bill is a perfect example of this syndrome.) One result: the Hatfield-McCoy feud in Congress will continue indefinitely: when the Republicans regain control, they will do everything they can to exclude Democrats from participating. And it’s human nature for people who feel excluded from the process to root for its products to fail. Surely a political system is healthier when a wide majority of its citizens have an investment in success.

Another problem: a president elected in part on a promise to reduce the intensity of partisanship in Washington now receives the most polarized approval ratings of any new president in the past forty years. A recent Pew poll found that 88 percent of Democrats approve of the job that Barack Obama is doing, versus only 27 percent of Republicans, a gap of 61 points, larger even than the gap that existed for George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan in the early months of their presidencies. As George W. Bush discovered, polarization is a two-edged sword: when the consequences of your policies discourage your supporters, you fall without a net.

I have not yet mentioned the negative consequences of polarization that Nivola and I identified in our coauthored framing chapter for Red and Blue Nation? Among them: a dysfunctional judicial confirmation process, the difficulty of maintaining a steady foreign policy, the near-impossibility of undertaking politically risky ventures such as entitlement reform, and the depression of public trust in government.

It will be tempting for the administration and congressional Democrats to seize what they see as an historic opportunity to enact long-sought measures such as universal health insurance, whatever Republicans may think, on the basis of a simple majority. Perhaps they can, and maybe they have no choice. Still, it’s worth recalling what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan often argued: enduring changes in consequential policies are rarely if ever built on slender partisan majorities.