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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

President Barack Hussein Obama (sounds nice, doesn’t it?) wishes to usher in a new era of bipartisan politics, where things get done for the good of the country and across political divides. I’m sure he means it, but it’s a terrible idea. Bipartisanship is a nice concept, and occasionally it even works. It should be pursued -- with caution -- whenever possible, but one should be under no illusion that it is a stable new way to do politics. The reason for this is that -- contra to the nonsense spouted by the likes of Ralph Nader -- there are profound differences between Republicans and Democrats in the US, just like there are between conservatives and progressives everywhere in the world.

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.


  1. Don't believe in bipartisanship because you must not believe in free will...

    Sounds reasonable, but it isn't. The left is, I believe, ultimately against legitimate freewill and for their own brand of determinism. Tho it is QUITE clear that many can't handle too much freedom when it is given to them, killing all avenues for choice is not the best way to reset and relearn a pattern for more sensible behavior.

    As diplomatic as BHO and those who really help him make his policy decisions seem to be RIGHT NOW, the goals behind their policy making is to move away from anything that keeps individuals, especially those who have something of a moral conscience, in control of their destiny. But it is a true moral conscience that helps people manage their freedom(s) properly. Take the reasons for that away and you really will be left with chaos at every level of society.

    It is just not a sustainable idea to have a 'true peace' and yet EVERYONE have things 'their own way'.

    All of a sudden miraculously, the Left believes in miracles. ;) Okay....

  2. Cal,

    People on the left have a strong sense of moral conscience. You see the world through your narrow version of morality which precludes you from understanding that anyone else's point of view can be ethical or moral.

    Barack Obama wants to take away free will? Who said everyone gets to have things their own way? What miracles does the left supposedly believe in? Every time you comment you make less sense than you did the last time!

  3. Screw bipartisanship. The conservatives lost the election. Their ideology, policies and beliefs were rejected by the country. They do not get to set the agenda or the policy. Why is Obama paling around with conservatives? How about a dinner party with the members of the progressive media instead of the right wing media liars like Will and Kristol?

    Bipartisanship: I'll hug your elephant if you kiss my ass.

    P.S. Check out the Citizen's Briefing Book over at Change.gov. "Share your ideas on any issue facing the new administration, then rate or comment on other ideas. The best rated ideas will rise to the top -- and be gathered into a Citizen's Briefing Book to be delivered to President Obama after he is sworn in."

    I'm sure we here could come up with many good ideas to submit and vote on. Many PROGRESSIVE ideas! Get to it!

  4. Good post, I hope more people think like that.

    President Barack Hussein Obama (sounds nice, doesn’t it?)

    Yeah... I think we should use his full name every time we can, just to piss off the racist idiots, specially the ones who believe he's Muslim (as if it was any worse than Christianity or others).

    Now, it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of Republicans think that women are worth less than men, unfortunately.

  5. The difference between Republicans and Democrats is indistinguishable in certain areas. The error you make (and others that criticize this criticism) is that there is no difference at all. Sure packing the Supreme Court should be different and I doubt we will see a faith based initiative from Democrats but corporate bailouts, the wars and health care are not much different. Do you think for minute that single payor will ever be passed in a Democratic controlled executive and legislature? Maybe we won't get a repeat of torture but who went along with $700 billion gift to the banks with almost $1 trillion going without any hearings or concessions on corporate governance or accountability. Oh, of course, the auto workers (not even a party to the auto bailout) must agree not to strike.

  6. Jeff,

    it all depends on what you mean by "not much difference" in certain areas. I'd like to see a single payer health care system, but do you honestly think a Republican administration would pass *any* kind of progressive (i.e., in favor of people, not corporations) health care reform? And "no more torture" (plus a much improved international standing, more attention to environmental problems, and so on) is more than enough difference for me not to be sympathetic to bipartisanship -- which was my main point in this post.

  7. "Sure packing the Supreme Court should be different and I doubt we will see a faith based initiative from Democrats..." - Jeff Kaufman

    You think incorrectly.

    Your post reminds me of a similar critique of bipartisanship, in the Atlantic Monthly. Basically, under this journalist’s analysis of bipartisanship, nothing gets done. There’s inertia. He looks at the Eisenhower years and notes that with both proponents and opponents of civil rights in the Democratic and Republican parties, no one party made a move in fear of internal strife.


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