About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Why I don’t believe in bipartisanship
Let me start with an example from my native country, Italy. For the past couple of decades Italy has been de facto a country with two parties: although there are in theory many parties big and small, they gravitate toward one of two “poles,” and it is one or the other of these two coalitions that has held power in the country for several years at a time. Now, just like in the US, the Italian left often speaks of bipartisanship and cooperation, and they (largely) mean it; as a result, the Italian left gets almost nothing of relevance done while in power. Then it’s the other guys’ turn, and they plunge head down with their agenda, completely oblivious to and even openly scornful of calls for cooperation and compromise. The result is that Italy has been on a steady trajectory to become one of the most regressive, unjust and racist countries in Europe. And unfortunately I do not see a reversal of this slide for many years to come, given the apparent inability of the left to mount any significant opposition to the Berlusconi government.
Back to the US now. Let me give you an obvious example of why Obama should simply pursue his policies and pass as many bills (not to mention appoint as many Supreme Court and other justices) as he can manage with the help of a Democratic congress, before things inevitably will change again and the Republicans will be back on the upswing (thankfully, in a democracy there is no such thing as a “permanent majority,” to use the infamous Karl Rove phrase; unless, that is, that democracy is effectively dead).
The example is the recent passage by the new Congress of two bills to curtail decades of discrimination against women in the work place. You see, since 1963 it is illegal in the US to pay a woman less than a man for the same sort of job, and yet this keeps happening because of huge loopholes in the law. Business and even some American lower courts have argued that discrimination is justifiable because of “market forces” (imagine substituting “African-Americans” for “women” in this context and see how that sounds). The Democratic controlled House has now passed a bill that allows women more than just 180 days to file a lawsuit against their employer for alleged cases of pay discrimination, overturning a decision made by the conservative Supreme Court just last year. To put it as Representative George Miller (D-CA) did, “Under the [Supreme Court] decision employers can get away with years of pay discrimination if they hide it for the first 180 days.” The new bill, instead, treats every paycheck as a case of discrimination, which means that the employee can sue as long as the discrimination is going on. Duh!
You would think that this is the kind of no-brain legislation in favor of fairness (for, incidentally, half of the electorate!) that even most Republicans could get on board with. You would be wrong: the bill passed the House with a 247 to 171 vote -- only two Republicans voted in favor. The second bill, which makes it easier for women to prove discrimination when it occurs, passed 256 to 163, with only ten Republicans voting for it.
Not surprisingly, Bush threatened to veto both bills, citing the usual crap about the fact that the legislation will “invite a surge of litigation” and “impose a tremendous burden on employers.” Fortunately, Bush isn’t going to be able to veto either bill, because he will be out of office when the legislation reaches the presidential desk (after the Senate, hopefully, passes a similar bill). Obama has already said that he is eager to sign it.
That is why bipartisanship doesn’t make sense. Individual Republican or Democratic legislators have, of course, a right to vote according to their assessment of each bill, not necessarily along strict party lines (and the voters have a right not to re-elect them if they keep voting with the other party), but there are fundamental philosophical disagreements between the two parties on almost any issue of relevance to the public. These disagreements should be honored by the leaders of both parties, who should seek compromise when possible, but forge ahead with their agenda in any case they can. Needless to say, Republicans -- like their Italian counterparts -- know this and consistently play a highly efficient game. It is the left, in Italy as much as in the United States, that needs to abandon naive notions about cooperation in politics and get as much done as possible when they have a chance. President Obama, this means you have at least a couple of years starting from next week. Make good use of ‘em, there is no time to waste.