Bipartisanship is not a virtue.
A reading of Matthew Yglesias’s magical thinking, and what it can tell us about the state of American liberalism and bipartisanship.
The essence of twenty-first century American liberalism is bipartisanship. Even saying the word has become a sort of ritual among liberals, from college know-it-all to TV pundit to senator in a position to actually engage in it, delivered either as a credulously mourning ubi sunt, or, more likely, with a smugly tilted mustache and wink, commenting on the hypocrisy of some legislator not working with the other party in a discrete instance.
These virtue signals tell us little about the person uttering them or the ideology that promotes these hollow displays. Sure, it feels good, great even, putting on a virtuous performance against a backdrop of general malaise and shrinking faith in our political institutions, but so it would with any other virtue. If bipartisanship is the essence of our liberalism, then what is that essence? What does bipartisanship look like as virtue in practice?
In an assemblage of counterfactuals, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias gives us some idea as to how this liberal totem might appear, if only we believed hard enough, and dared to look in the right places. According to Yglesias, leftist’s brains, occluded with rage and clamor to stand up to Trump, are playing memory tricks — the bipartisanship was actually here all along. “The reality,” he writes,
is that while McConnell certainly did break precedent and certainly did have this kind of strategy, GOP opposition was less across-the-board than it’s remembered in liberal folk history. Obama passed a number of significant bills with Republican support in his first two years in office, and Democrats have, thus far, been drastically less cooperative with Trump’s Cabinet nominees than Republicans were with Obama’s.
Yglesias revises history throughout his essay with clever rhetorical elisions. How many bills did Obama pass with Republican support? A number. What kind of bills were they? Significant. What these mealymouthed descriptors belie is that the bipartisanship of this historical moment had a profound impact on the legislation in question, often rendering it so ineffectual that the industries targeted for regulation moved to endorse the efforts, as in the case of Dodd-Frank. More critically, what Yglesias seemingly fails to comprehend is that the bipartisanship of the Obama years was not an aberration or contrast to the McConnell stonewall, but a calculated gambit which allowed New England Republicans to save face with their more moderate constituencies, all while extracting massive concessions from the Democrats. The end result of the most significant efforts Yglesias lists: a financial reform package endorsed by Goldman Sachs, and a stimulus package a fraction of its original size, which he notes “was honestly not that substantively different from the Republican alternative.”
If one were to stop here, the natural conclusion would be that bipartisanship is more of a spectre that looms over a legislative session, the threat and eminence of which must be taken into account when making strategic decisions. Certainly, that is the correct conclusion: that’s what bipartisanship is, in the practical sense, a cynically used and evoked method of extracting demands from political enemies, all while looking good doing it. The threat of war delivered with a smile and handshake. Yglesias, however, continues with an often contradictory and factually-dubious-but-cleverly-rhetorically-elided history of American party politics, and it is in this jilted timeline that we come to understand bipartisanship the totem, bipartisanship the Platonic form, bipartisanship the liberal virtue.
For Yglesias, bipartisanship can be described historically as “a ratchet that has been shifting for a long time.” Or rather, he does not explicitly describe bipartisanship thus, though it’s unclear what else the ratchet in question could be. This is not to nitpick his prose! As vague as this metaphor is, it is through the play in meaning that the vagueness allows a glimpse of the nature of bipartisanship as a virtue, which is something other than an act or ethos. It is a condition, a state of being. Something is either bipartisan, or it is not. “In the middle of the 20th century,” for instance,
the two political parties did not offer clearly contrasting ideologies. That meant members of Congress generally felt cross-pressured between partisan and ideological imperatives, and it fostered a broadly cooperative atmosphere.
Which is to say, both sides were, more or less, committed to segregation of one kind or another and anticommunism, the “broadly cooperative atmosphere” of bipartisanship only dissipating in the wake of the civil rights movement. The context of the time, the historical circumstance that fosters this cross-party collaboration is irrelevant for Yglesias, who is content to write off the consensus on these horrors as a lack of difference. Even this more detailed reading is a rosy revisionism, which is why Yglesias so quickly moves on to more familiar times.
The “Reagan Revolution” of 1981-’82 was undertaken even though Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives because Speaker Tip O’Neill was willing to repeatedly bring Republican bills to the floor that would then pass with the support of a small number of conservative Democrats — a scenario that is totally unthinkable under today’s legislative norms.
Sure enough, O’Neill’s collaboration with the Reagan government brought massive change to all aspects of American life, much of which we’re still recovering from today. Yet again context is stripped from history, both the disastrous results of the Reagan turn, as well as O’Neill’s only contingent reasoning for collaborating: “in the crisis the nation was in, in the sense that there was an overwhelming need for change, that there was an overwhelming sentiment that the President should be given a chance, the Democrats would have been blamed for obstructionism.” Only in stripping the crisis of past, present, and impending future can bipartisanship stand as a virtue in this superposition of historical moments, and Yglesias flays it to the bone, until all that’s left is the condition of collaboration between Reagan and O’Neill, so evidently good that not only does it not need defense or elaboration, but it can be ported forward as a value judgment against “today’s legislative norms,” referring not to the Republican obstruction of the Obama era but the so far four-for-four Trump cabinet confirmations.
History, contingency, politics, momentum, whatever — these are all distractions for Yglesias, who seems capable of reducing even the most overtly motivated or interested actions and reactions to an evaluation of bipartisanship. “Democrats are responding to the Trump administration by offering,” he writes,
an unprecedentedly low level of support for his Cabinet nominees. They are signaling potential willingness to pass an infrastructure spending program that, if it comes together, would essentially amount to Trump coming around to a view Democrats have espoused for years. Meanwhile, there is zero indication of any Democratic support for any Republican Party legislative initiatives to reduce taxes or federal spending.
If not for the twelve hundred words preceding, we might mistake this for a simple political reporting! And yet the value judgment hangs heavy on the Democrats, who, despite previous acknowledgement that past collaboration with the far right was a fruitless mistake, despite our recent collective experience of absolutely effective Republican obstruction and refusal to collaborate — which, we note again, Yglesias has spun as bipartisanship by taking a few votes out of their greater context — and at times even a refusal to acknowledge the Obama’s legitimacy, the Democratic obstruction is a problem. Unprecedented, he claims, though he makes this point in the face of thus far total capitulation to the new president’s appointees and executive orders by ignoring the fact and moving on. Why would one expect Democrats to support a Republican agenda right after an election? They simply should, at least some of it, seemingly for the sake of doing so.
Much of this reading of Matthew Yglesias reveals our own reliance on contingencies, weird and ephemeral ones as far as political commentary is concerned, like seeming, apparent, and so on, and this is can only be explained as a byproduct of our subject matter: first, because at no point is a justification offered for any instance of bipartisanship as good or its lack thereof as bad, and second because in dealing with bipartisanship in the virtuous sense with which liberals like Yglesias hold it, we are ultimately dealing with an apparition in the most literal sense.
Through the Yglesian reading of history as a series of irrelevant circumstances that either are or are not bipartisan, we come to see the virtue of bipartisanship for what it really is, spectral, though not a menacing thing as it might be for a crafty legislator. Rather than a spectre of war, to the liberal mind bipartisanship is akin to Hamlet’s father, a rotten, armor-clad apparition, half real and half mirage, moving the beholder toward a bitter end. An alternative, cynical reading perhaps might do better, one in which Hamlet conjures his own spirit as a rationalization of things he will do anyway, by which bipartisanship as a virtue becomes a convenient redoubt.
More charitably, let us take the author at his own words, and read it as a ratchet, fastened around some inconspicuous bolt of the diesel engine that is technocratic neoliberal ideology, a turn this way or that controlling how much bipartisanship flows into the combustive admixture, firing the engine. Where is the train going? Why? Who is on it? What is it carrying? These are all minor details to our conductor. If there is virtue here, it is the masturbatory drive to see the gauges redline. His only job is to keep the damn thing going, his only remaining jouissance to hear the engine roar when the ratchet’s at full tilt.
David V (soft money) is a freelancer and writes about politics, healthcare, science, and language. A former biotech exec, he currently teaches university writing. His work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic. Contact him on Medium, Twitter, and on his personal website. If you enjoyed the essay, consider leaving a tip to support his work.