A false political unity: Why the mythical vision of bipartisanship is an actual threat to progress
After the initial flush of optimism from the passage of the landmark infrastructure bill, the Biden Presidency is starting the year on a political down note. Both the “Build Back Better” and voting reform acts have stalled seemingly indefinitely. Just as troubling his approval rating and the public’s overall optimism about the nation’s direction have plummeted to near historic lows.
Biden’s response is as predictable as it is lamentable. He has blamed the scourge of hyper-partisanship and mourns the golden age of political bipartisanship that reigned supreme in the recent past. He lamented on a popular late-night show that real problem was the far-right “Big Lie” dividing the U.S. and making it almost impossible to work with Republicans, declaring:
“QAnon and the extreme elements of the Republican Party and what, Donald Trump keeps sort of, seems to me feeding the, you know what, the big lie, it makes it awful hard.”
Undoubtedly, the delusions of far-right conspiracy theorists must be exposed, combatted, and dispelled. However, Biden and other conservative Democrats are perpetuating their own dangerous myths — conveniently forgetting that the cross-party consensus they so love produced mass incarceration, the war on terror, climate change, massive inequality, and disastrous military invasions. It should always be remembered that when elites agree, the majority of people usually suffer the most.
The Actual Threat of Bipartisanship
The desire for bipartisanship is a sacred political value in the United States. It represents a mythical vision of a politics based on cooperation and shared values rather than polarization and ideological division. Contemporary politicians often refer back to a supposed golden era of bipartisan collaboration in the 1950s and 1960s, comparing it to today’s more fractured and conflictual climate. Yet this desire for both Parties to simply “work together” masks the troubling reality of what actually happens when they do so. Rather than coming together for the common good, they usually use their collective power and shared beliefs to benefit elites at the expense of the majority with profound long-lasting and global consequences.
Indeed, it was precisely the “Washington Consensus” around the need for free-market development that is responsible for exploding inequality across the world. The so-called “experts” in both major parties to this day continue to believe that greater marketization, privatization, and financialization can actually deliver enhanced democracy, shared material prosperity, and social progress. Despite all available evidence to the otherwise, it is this bipartisan dogmatism that has fueled the failure to properly address the climate crisis or challenge the destructive power of corporations.
Closer to home, the worst and most harmful policies in recent U.S. history have only been made possible through the cooperation of Republicans and Democrats. The loss of freedom and systemic racism of mass incarceration and the “War on Drugs” were the result of both parties wanting to “get tough on crime.” Likewise, the human disaster of the War on Terror as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has massive cross-party support. The failure to transform our oligarchic economic system and take on the influence of Wall Street after the financial crisis was the blame as much of the Democratic administration of Barack Obama as it was the Republican leadership of George W. Bush.
While it is an almost unquestioned truth that bipartisanship is a good and laudable goal, it is in actual fact quite politically dangerous. It reflects a shared elite ideology that has little to do with either working together to solve real social problems or serve the interests of most people. The truth is that it is precisely the breaking down of bipartisan delusions and policies that will open the way for genuine change and reform.
The desire for unity, though, rests on a deeper and even more dangerous political myth. It is that our current corporate-controlled democracy actually has two sides. Rather, it is more accurate to say that it is one party with more virulent and less virulent capitalist wings. These differences are important, as recent elections have shown. Yet they also show the threat of both sides coming together for a common purpose — which will almost always be in the interests of elites.
The appeal to bipartisanship in truth represents an extreme form of political partisanship. It reflects the dominance of corporations and free-market ideologies at the exclusion of everyone else. It drowns out alternative perspectives as “unrealistic,” “misguided,” or “ideologically driven” while promoting its own elitist agenda as “pragmatic,” “evidence based,” and “collaborative.” Meanwhile, the rich get richer and the powerful become more powerful.
Progress — and the breaking of this consensus status quo — has only come by a demand for greater partisanship not less. This is witnessed, of course, in the rise of left-wing politicians at the national and local levels who are willing to challenge the “perceived wisdom” of the establishment. Most significantly, it is reflected in the efforts to subvert false partisan divisions between “Democrats and Republicans” for genuine struggles based around class concerns and systemic prejudice.
As we enter into 2022, the aim should not be just to win another election or achieve a false unity between two political parties with the same corporate backers. Rather, the ultimate goal is to radically transform society and in doing so foster a new sense of togetherness around values of equality, social justice, and global solidarity.