The System Isn't Broken

Partisanship is par for the course

It's peculiar to see so many people who embark on political careers claim later that they have deep-seated moral aversions to politics. Hey, they may join parties, but they simply can't tolerate partisanship.

When Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), announced his decision not to run for re-election this year, he became the latest spurned statesman to sound the phony alarm about the "brain-dead" and cancerous hyper-partisanship that allegedly is calcifying now in Washington.

No one can blame an honest man for fleeing politics, but Bayh should not have denigrated one of the vital functions of governance in a free society: partisanship. One can be a partisan and have brains. But someone with brains should not confuse his own political impotence with the End of Days.

Is partisanship, hyper or otherwise, destructive?

That's a matter of perspective, I suppose. For guidance, let's turn to Rep. Barney Frank, powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who recently grumbled to a group of college students that partisanship is getting "out of control" in Congress.

Scary stuff. Yet in a 2004 piece written by Frank for The Gay & Lesbian Review, titled "In Praise of Partisanship," Frank asserted that "partisanship, properly understood, is not only a valid approach; it is in our current political climate the most effective way to fight for some very important values."

So, you see, partisanship is valid when "properly understood" and when "important values" are at stake in a "political climate" that is approved by ... well, the right people. The congressman wrote this when he was in the minority (the right "political climate," no doubt) and he was yearning for an influential chairmanship (what politicians refer to as an "important value"). And that is how to understand the situation properly.

Or take the Rev. Jim Wallis, a well-known progressive activist, whose religious affiliation gives his comments unwarranted gravitas. He told The Denver Post this week that he believes that "the nation is in deep trouble. The political system is broken."

Really? "Deep trouble"? Perhaps—if the political system you're pining for happens to be one-party rule. I mean, is there a beer hall putsch in the works? Is the wood being gathered for guillotines? Have the midterm elections been canceled?

When the sitting vice president guns down the former treasury secretary on a beach in New Jersey, politics might be broken. (Then again, let's also concede that dueling is, in general, more honorable than relying on 527s to do your dirty work.) But if Democrats, only a year after hosannas rained down on their man, aren't getting their way, it is no reflection on the system.

In fact, at the same time partisanship is unseemly, it is generally constructive. It is also the normal state of being. The two-party system, with all its obvious faults, allows most of you to vote for some generally acceptable envoy to advocate for whatever ideological belief system you've decided on that election cycle.

In this system, two powerful parties of consensus try to destroy each other and, at the same time, keep an eye on polls. And if polls are any indication, it seems as if the process is working quite well these days.

So relax; the republic will survive—with partisanship and without Evan Bayh.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at www.DavidHarsanyi.com.

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  • Xeones||

    I heard Bayh on the radio yesterday. Unsurprisingly, his idea of "bipartisanship" is "everyone agrees with Evan Bayh."

  • Bawney Fwank||

    "partisanship, properly understood, is not only a valid approach; it is in our current political climate the most effective way to fight for some very important values."

    Specificawwy, when pwopewwy undewstood, it is in ouw cuwwent powiticaw cwimate the most effective way to fight fow my vawues.

  • ||

    My sense is that Mr. Bayh's and Mr. Frank's complaint is that "partisanship" is bogging their agendas down in "gridlock". However, anyone with even a passing sense of the framers' intent in writing the Constitution knows that gridlock is not a bug, but a feature.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Gridlock has done more to save this country than any piece of legislation to come out of Congress.

  • ||

    It's "gridlock" when you are against it. It is the "balance of powers" when you are for it.

    Jargon matters!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Gridlock sounds more manly.

    Or maybe gay, come to think of it.

  • ||

    Partisanship totally matters because it holds people responsible. Moderate quislings on both sides do tremendous damage to our political system. They allow horribly bad ideas to come to fruition and prevent either side from being held responsible for them. If both sides vote for something, neither side can be held responsible for it. Better to have party line votes so that the everyone knows the winning side gets all the credit or all the blame.

  • rhofulster||

    I think you are absolutely right. It was in this light that I interpreted Bush II's visible agitation at the D's who didn't vote to send the troops to Iraq.

  • ||

    To decide the merits of partisanship over the alternatives, you have to know what the alternative would actually be. I would say a system that encourages strategic voting over honest voting is perhaps not broken, but is at least an inefficient means of divining guidance.
    Btw, I didn't see anything in the final paragraphs that support the two party system over a more than two party system.

  • Almanian||

    Agreed, and esp re: the last two graphs.

    David H: not always, but sometimes, the two-party system leaves me wanting for a choice that I can make in good conscience - hardly some generally acceptable envoy to advocate for whatever ideological belief system you've decided on that election cycle. More like "do I have more integrity if I hold my nose and vote for the less-bad choice, or if I don't vote at all, realizing one of them is going to win, but at least I didn't vote for them."

  • ed||

    I say we get rid of partisanship by outlawing all but one political party. It's working great for China. We arrogant Americans could learn something from the yellow peril.

  • Thomas Friedman||

    Now this guy has the right idea.

  • ed||

    Thanks. Can I, too, get a prize for my crackpot commentary?

  • ||

    When the sitting vice president guns down the former treasury secretary on a beach in New Jersey, politics might be broken.

    Sounds like it's working the way I want it.

  • ||

    Regardless of what you might feel about Mr. Burr's later misadventures elimination of any further bad influence from the sleezy monarchist Hamilton was a good thing. Instead of President's Day in February we should celebrate Burr Day in honor of Aaron's birthday.

  • ||

    Is the wood being gathered for guillotines?

    Only figuratively. :(

  • ||

    Sharpening is for guillotines,
    wood is for burning at the stake.
    Silly Rabbit

  • ||

    Partisanship is good in that it guarantees that any proposal will run into automatic/instinctive opposition.

    Since most proposals are bad ideas and/or involve the expansion of the Total State, a mechanism that insures opposition is a Good Thing.

    I would say a system that encourages strategic voting over honest voting is perhaps not broken, but is at least an inefficient means of divining guidance.

    What is this "honest voting" of which you speak?

  • ||

    "Is there another quarter behind my ear?"

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Seriously, why is this news? Did Bayh do anything other than inspire a big collective yawn? A Democrat without a liberal bone in his body and no regard for fiscal conservatism, he was about as bad as joe Lierberman, but he mewled more. Good riddance.

  • ||

    One more thing:

    Partisanship basically translates into an instinctive distrust and cynicism about the politicians on the other side. Since when is distrust and cynicism about politicians ever misplaced?

  • liberty_equality_solidarity||

    'Since when is distrust and cynicism about politicians ever misplaced?'

    Never, I would say the problem (as I've seen it) is that my distrust of 'the party on the other side', leads to blind trust in the party on 'my side'. The reality, of course, is that neither is on 'my side' or worthy of any trust.

  • ||

    I just skimmed the article, but I think I disagree. Partisanship, in the sense that party interests take precedence over other interests, is largely bad. Disagreement, opposition, and gridlock, on the other hand, are not.

    Someone else on partisanship:

    I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

    This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

    The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

    Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

    It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

    There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
  • ||

    Well, I agree with you in principle that the party system (especially dominated by two or very few parties) is very undesirable, as long as there is a party system, however, it is best if they are beholden to some sort of opposing beliefs - whatever the motive behind those beliefs. In that sense - as long as there are parties - then partisanship is a good thing.

    Maybe I say this, though, because I cringe whenever I hear about a bipartisan effort since it is rarely a good thing for the country when ALL the liars and thieves in Congress are in agreement about something.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    Who wrote that PL? It kind of reminds me of something John Adams wrote about political parties.

  • ||

    The Big GW.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    That makes sense, GW & JA both despised political parties. It's funny how historians always label them as Federalists.

  • ||

    Nobody labels Washington a Federalist. As for Adams, he called himself a Federalist.

  • ||

    It's from his Farewell Address.

  • MJ||

    Because while Washingtom was publicly nonpartisan, the majority of his appointments were Federalists.

  • ||

    And while no one can blame an honest man for fleeing politics

    What does this have to do with Bayh?

  • ||

    Partisanship, as a pejorative, is really a comment on bad faith. To call someone a partisan in the context we here use it the most makes it synonymous with "deliberately deluded fanatic."

  • ||

    It is just another way of saying "you don't really believe what you are saying". It is both highly annoying and a completely unproductive method of argument.

  • ||

    I honestly wouldn't care about partisanship if only the powers that be stop their little girl pouting over it.

    Christ on a pogo stick. What a bunch of whiny little bitches.

  • ||

    There is also the connotation of "you will defend your side no matter how much they act against your stated principles". This is essentially about hypocrisy. Let's call it the "joe syndrome".

    This type of partisanship is the worst, because I know you're just defending your side. You know you're just defending your side. But you pretend that you're not. Which is rather insulting considering how obvious it is. But it also makes you look like a moron for thinking it's not completely obvious.

    By the way, the use of "you" here is not directed at John, it is directed at all partisans.

  • ||

    If you are talking about ethics, defending crooks and reprobates on your side no matter what, partisanship as you describe it is very bad. If you are talking about policy, then I think it is good.

    I will believe in policy bi-partisan policy when I see a bi-partisan policy that is anything but an excuse to just let let both sides steal equally.

  • ||

    Joe Partisanship is denying the undeniable. For example, on the other thread the discussion of William F. Buckley and segregation came up. Not really knowing that much about WFB beyond reading his magazine and find his son to be an insufferable douche, I had never heard that he supported segregation for grounds other than federalism. Sure enough someone produced a link showing where he did.

    That means that he was an asshole, at least at that time. I don't know maybe later he repented and apologized. But the statement is what it is. You can't defend it.

    But if the infamous Joe were still here and the statement was by Ted Kennedy had said it, Joe would have fought to the death and never admitted that it was anything but wonderful. That is partisanship at its worst.

  • ||

    Segregation was bad for business: http://historyhalf.com/jim-crow-and-capitalism/

    So was slavery: http://historyhalf.com/slavery.....apitalism/

    Smart right wingers always opposed both.

  • ||

    Voting in Congress the way your party says to vote kind of defeats the purpose of (1) thinking as you were elected to do, and (2) representing the interests of all of your constituents.

  • creech||

    How can I represent the interests of "all" my constituents? Can Congressman X take a poll and split his vote three ways? I like what Goldwater had to say: "And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents' 'interests', I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can."

  • ||

    The interests of your constituents vs. the interests of the national party is what I really was focusing on, but I also meant that you aren't supposed to just represent those who voted for you, which is something the party system frankly encourages.

  • LibertyBill||

    Whats wrong with Partisanship again? Im quite comfortable with my hate for Paleocons, Neocons, The Christian Right, Economic Liberals and some Social Liberals.

  • ||

  • Mad Max||

    Much of our current problems involve *bi*partisanship - those things on which the two parties agree, such as the welfare/warfare state, and allied ills.

    On the "divisive" issues (like you-know-what), the problem to my mind is that "the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity."

    For instance, while Republicans are, as a party, committed on paper to opposing (you-know-what), the mainstream party leaders see the issue mainly as vote-fodder to pry culturally-conservative people away from the Democrats. The Republicans who actually care deeply about (you-know-what) are not usually in leadership positions (though the late Henry Hyde was an exception).

    The issues on which the parties disagree most vehemently look, to the outside observer, like the dispute among the Lilliputians in Gulliver's travels about which side of a boiled egg to crack. Swift's point was that a normal person can't even tell which end of a Lilliputian egg is which, yet the Lilliputians divide into parties and fight each other ferociously about the matter.

    It seems that the wide consensus on many issues doesn't make out politics any more civil - it simply increases the acrimony over those few issues on which the parties disagree.

    And many of the issues on which the parties disagree boil down to "our party should be in power!" That certainly excites partisans more than any other given issue.

  • ||

    They fight so viciously over things like gay marriage and the pledge of the alliance because neither side really has a solution for the big problems they are willing to be honest about. The liberals would love to turn the place into Sweden but get slapped down politically every time they admit as much. The conservatives either honestly benefit and believe in big government or are too afraid to be called nuts and extremist to tell the truth about what they believe. So both just avoid the subject and fight over dumb cultural stuff.

  • Mad Max||

    I don't see anything dumb with defending marriage, but the Republicans generally don't show a lot of zeal (except rhetorically) for fighting this battle. What really gets them excited is calling people elitists and saying that torture is too good for terrorist suspects.

  • ||

    Most people support torturing terrorist suspects. Republicans support it because it is a political winner.

  • Mad Max||

    Republicans didn't support torture enough to legalize it when they controlled Congress and the White House. They just want to keep the laws as they are and denounce anyone who suggests they be enforced.

  • ||

    They should have been honest and legalized it. But they didn't have the balls to do it. They were too afraid of the media. The reality is that no one cares what the media thinks and they wouldn't have paid any political price. But no one ever accused them of having any principles or courage. If they did, they wouldn't be in politics.

  • Mad Max||

    If the media is responsible for keeping our anti-torture laws on the books, then my admiration for the media just went up.

  • ||

    Whoever or whatever is responsible, it sure as hell isn't public opinion.

  • Mad Max||

    Good thing we live in a republic, not a democracy.

    If we were governed by the immediate impulses of the citizens ("public opinion"), then we'd be like ancient Athens - one day killing philosophers who piss us off, the next day invading Syracuse because some pretty boy thinks it's a good idea to do so.

  • Mad Max||

    In a true republic, informed deliberation among citizens leads to the election of people committed to the republic's laws and principles, who then make decisions based on the public interest . . .

    Darn, I woke up.

  • Mad Max||

    . . . such a nice dream, too.

  • ||

    Well we haven't killed any philosophers that I know of. And Socrates kind of asked for it with the whole "you could give me a meal for the rest of my life comment". And fortunately Iraq has gone a lot better than Sicily went for the Athenians.

  • Mad Max||

    'we haven't killed any philosophers that I know of.'

    Because we're not a full democracy yet. Or maybe because we're just too nice and would never, ever, fall into the errors of the ancient democracies against which Madison and that crowd warned us.

  • Mad Max||

    and suggesting that Democrats are against torture - which misstates the Democratic position.

    Democrats simply believe in outsourcing torture to other governments.

  • Both||

    It's "deaf", not "dumb".

    Deaf.

  • ||

    Joe Partisanship is denying the undeniable. For example, on the other thread the discussion of William F. Buckley and segregation came up. Not really knowing that much about WFB beyond reading his magazine and find his son to be an insufferable douche, I had never heard that he supported segregation for grounds other than federalism. Sure enough someone produced a link showing where he did.

    That means that he was an asshole, at least at that time. I don't know maybe later he repented and apologized. But the statement is what it is. You can't defend it.

    But if the infamous Joe were still here and the statement was by Ted Kennedy had said it, Joe would have fought to the death and never admitted that it was anything but wonderful. That is partisanship at its worst.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Did I miss the Tiger Woods speech thread?

  • ||

    Any time a politician leaves with vaguely hurt feelings it's a good day!

  • ||

    When a politician faces an election he is likely to lose he will say everything to rationalize his decision to drop out rather then admit the truth that it is a waste of time and money running a losing campaign.

  • Some Guy||

    Partisanship is a poor substitute for having more than a handful of non-evil members of Congress.

    But that option isn't available.

  • Kroneborge||

    Yes, but it's not just the partisanship, it's that it's combined with rigged districts so that only the most partisan (espeically in CA) people get elected.

    This makes hard situations almost impossible to govern.

    And while the standard libertarian answer is that's good, I submit that we've already done so much damage, that we need a couple of good fixes. Otherwise all the programs on autopilot (entilements etc) will REALLY wreck the country.

    So in this case, we could use some people that are going to put the good of the country over the good of their party, and sit down and fix the big mess we are in.

  • ||

    All moot for this reason: Today's political atmosphere is no different than that of the 1950s, 1920s, 1880s, 1820s, 1770s into perpetuity.

    You would think people who supposedly enjoy politics and serve in the Congress would have a hint of knowledge about the body and the history of politics in America.

    You'd be wrong.

  • ||

    No cause is ever lost because no cause is ever won.

  • ||

    The biggest threat to almost anything is sudden seismic shifts. Suddenly adopting some world-altering policy or other.

    Partisianship makes sure that almost never happens, except in rare, and usually justified, circumstances.

    Two things that people complain about politics that really bug me: Special interests and partisianship.

    Yes, my interests are special to me and I want them represented and no, I'm not willing to give up those interests just because you say so in the name of bipartisianship.

  • ||

    No one should be king. Not even me.

  • ||

    Exsmackly.

  • Some Guy||

    Yes, my interests are special to me and I want them represented and no, I'm not willing to give up those interests just because you say so in the name of bipartisianship.

    But why should I have to pay for your interests?

  • PR||

    if only we would purge dissent we'd be rid of this horrible partisanship

  • Ska||

    Anyone see this in google newes? I thought it was interesting.

    http://www.pcworld.com/article.....dents.html

  • ||

    Hey, just down the road from me.

  • kinnath||

    It takes organization to run the government. This organization takes the form of parties. You join a party that mostly matches your own beliefs with the recognition that some comprimise is required. If the party takes a turn in a direction that runs counter to your core beliefs, then you need to leave the party.

    Nothing in that is unreasonable.

    Our modern problems seems to involve a fundamental change in the purpose of the party. Parties need to win power in order to make the government run in a way that matches the party's goals. However, party politics seems to be focussed on acquiring power to enable the acquisition of more power. The parties no longer seem to really be interested in running the government, only acquiring power and distributing the benefits of power ot their supporters.

    Or maybe it has always been that way and government happens by accident.

  • ||

    "The parties no longer seem to really be interested in running the government, only acquiring power and distributing the benefits of power ot their supporters."

    They are, and always have been, interested in running the government for the power it provides. That isn't new. Its called politics, and its been going on for eons.

    Of course, you can point to past politicians who did what they thought was "right." But then again, you can point to current ones who do that as well. Both are few and far between, but the losers get forgotten about over 200 years or so and only the great ones rise to memory.

    And if Teapot Dome wasn't about distributing the goodies of power to friends, then nothing today is.

  • Old Mexican||

    It takes organization to run the government.

    As it does to run a criminal organization. Even though both act in exactly the same manner, it is insteresting to note that private criminal enterprises are more efficient than the public ones . . . Hmmm.

    The parties no longer seem to really be interested in running the government, only acquiring power and distributing the benefits of power ot their supporters.

    That's because tarring and feathering was banned . . .

  • Some Guy||

    it is insteresting to note that private criminal enterprises are more efficient than the public ones

    Where do you live that mob protection money gets deducted directly from your check?

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Someguy,

    Where do you live that mob protection money gets deducted directly from your check?

    Right here in California, and the mob recently deducted 10% off my paycheck - the Mob being (of course) the State government.

    What? You think the government criminal enterprise likes competition? You think they would allow any other competitor taking money off my paycheck? They're the ONLY game in town, buddy!

  • Some Guy||

    So then following your logic, the state government of California is a private enterprise?

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Some Guy,

    So then following your logic, the state government of California is a private enterprise?

    No, a criminal enterprise.

  • Some Guy||

    Yes, but you said that:
    1) Private criminal enterprises are the most efficient.
    2) California's state government is the most efficient criminal enterprise.

  • Old Mexican||

    Bipartisanship. (n). From Bi, double or both and Partisan, one side of an ideological spectrum or belief; party affiliation.

    Definition: When the wolf and the lion reach an agreement on how to eat the sheep.

  • Lysander Spooner||

    Have the midterm elections been canceled?

    I'd vote for that!

  • ||

    partisanship is fine, but I think the Dems are not partisan enough. They have a huge majority. elections have consequences. They should do whatever they want to, through reconciliation, and bear the political consequences. Gridlock is indeed exemplified by 41 senators (who represent about 37% of the population) blocking everything through procedural tactics. Dems should ram whatever up and down their superminority throats and asses. They have a mandate. Just like Bush did ;)

  • K-Y||

    I can't remember what article it was from but I heard the idea that gerrymandering has resulted in so many "safe" districts in which the election is decided in the primary where candidates go radical in an attempt to gain the party nomination that our representatives are further right and left than they used to be.

  • Tony||

    Favoring gridlock does not carry any special virtue. Not acting on a particular issue can be making a policy choice. To say their is something admirable about the status quo (the default libertarian position for some reason) is to say that minority rule in the senate and a nonfunctional government are good. But what if the policy status quo were severely detrimental to freedom? There are plenty of evil socialist programs out there to dismantle, aren't there? This country's seniors are on evil government-run healthcare. How do gridlock and a dysfunctional government help protect our grandparents from all the evils of socialized medicine? There is so much work to do to rid them of the scourge of guaranteed medicine?

    Or could it be that anything that stops Democrats from having policy successes is good for you and your brand, no matter how many people in the country want them to accomplish the things they were elected to do?

  • ||

    Who, precisely, is saying "their [sic] is something admirable about the status quo"?

    The status quo IS "severely detrimental to freedom". There are indeed, "plenty of evil socialist programs out there to dismantle" and even programs that are not "socialist". Bi-partisanship now will not dismantle any. Nor will it increase freedom.

    Gridlock is the least bad option because it slows the relentless growth of gov't power.

  • Tony||

    Gridlock is the least bad option because it slows the relentless growth of gov't power.

    And you don't see why this cynical, nonsensical defense of the status quo might be a little bit unappealing to most people?

    If government growth were so inexorable as to be immune from all reform, what makes you think it can be stopped now?

  • MJ||

    The people who hold the theoretical reins of power (Obama, Reid, Pelosi, et al) have stated publicly that they are against stopping government growth. Uner the current make-up of the government, gridlock is the best, or least worst option. You have deal with political terrain as it lies.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Tony, when your party is next in the minority, it can go about doing the same thing Republicans have been doing lately.

    And your side will gladly wear the obstructionist crown.

    And the country will be better off for it.

  • Rob John||

  • abercrombie milano||

    I just need this, Well done! Many thanks.

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