Monday, May 26, 2008

Partisanship and Principle: There's a Difference

There’s lots of chatter about partisanship lately. Both Matthew Yglesias and Liberal Desert think it’s a good thing.

I don't.

Yglesias’ argument for partisanship hinges on his notion that “[s]trong clashes between coherent parties aren’t a sign that the country is flying apart—they mean we’re getting along better than we think.”

Could have fooled me. If being partisan had anything to do with coherent parties, maybe it would be a synonym for being principled. Unfortunately, partisanship doesn’t mean voting according to principle. In fact, it has a distinctly negative meaning, for good reason.

To Yglesias: It’s not clear to me that Republicans especially have anything even approaching party coherence—if that has anything to do with the traditional positions of Democrats and Republicans on government, spending, taxation, state’s rights, foreign affairs, regulation, business, welfare, civil rights, privacy, and the Constitution.

In fact, I can sum up what I see as raging Republican incoherence just by noting a couple of ideological contradictions among its three factions: traditional old-time small-government moderates, radical social reactionaries, and Darwinian corporatists. The latter two, for different reasons, are making hash of traditional Republican stands on foreign intervention, privacy, and spending, for instance. Item: Globalization, passionately supported by Republicans, is virulent foreign intervention. A foreign policy driven by the Rapture is foreign intervention. Domestic spying and consumer marketing built on mammoth databases of the minutest details of our lives are leading the Freepers, who went ballistic over Janet Reno, to very odd places. And state’s rights, a traditional Republican bedrock, are fine, apparently, except when they’re not fine, as in socially progressive stands that then trigger rash constitutional amendment frenzies. Sort of like democracy at home and abroad, which is also fine except when the people make the “wrong” choices.

Like Yglesias, Liberal Desert’s argument for partisanship turns on the assumption that it’s better than the alternative: “The next time a candidate denounces partisanship, consider the last time we had a bipartisan, across-the-board consensus, where politicians put party aside and did what they thought best for the entire country: We invaded Iraq.”

Well, yes, but we were deluded and lied to. To my way of thinking, being stampeded by lies and fear is not a good example of sound consensus decision making. I could be wrong about that, but I like to think a fairer example of bipartisanship is more along the lines of the recent Congressional approval of major increases in benefits for war veterans. There is a clear question of core party values here unobscured by lying about Saddam's WMD. To wit: Is it part of the government’s responsibility to repay war vets for their sacrifices through health care, education and housing subsidies, and the like, or is that just another bleeding heart, tax-and-spend liberal policy?

No partisan Republican would ever vote for increasing veterans’ benefits because it is a case of misuse of government. Just ask McCain and Bush.

Is partisanship a good thing? I guess it depends what you mean by “partisanship.” It certainly doesn’t mean hewing to a coherent political philosophy. That’s principled consistency, not partisanship.

Partisanship means mindlessly toeing the party line, acting in lockstep regardless of the merits. It is a knee-jerk, biased, and ultimately lightweight approach to the heavy responsibilities of governing, and it’s not a good thing, ever.

For instance, voting for (or against) the “patriot" acts without reading them first is partisan--an utterly irresponsible abdication. So, too, the Terri Schiavo vote. Both bills violated fundamental Republican principles, yet both were supported by Republicans almost to a person. That’s partisanship. Its consequences are extravagantly dangerous to our way of life.

A footnote: There’s a reason many of us can’t define partisanship. For amost eight years, the White House has intentionally confounded partisanship with voting on principle. Democrats’ opposition to Bush judicial nominees, Bush environmental policies, and Bush tax cuts for the wealthy are always described in Republican talking points as “partisanship.”

But that’s not accurate. No Democrat would support a nominee like Janice Rodgers Brown, or a plan to lower air quality standards, or placing America’s tax burden only on its wage earners. No Democrat would go along with these monuments to Republican ideology, on principle.


Michael Bryan said...

It really comes down to semantics. Nobody loves mindless partisanship, but principled partisanship (as you put it) or peer reviewed politics (as I would term such reasoned partisanship) is very much the mainspring of our democratic process. To lose sight of the fact that disagreement (and negotiation) are the heart of politics is to embrace something far less savory, and less productive, than political competition.