Thursday, July 22, 2021



James Gillray, 1791, "The Hopes of the Party Before July 14", showing the Whig leader Charles James Fox as ready to chop off the head of George III, while Queen Charlotte and the Tory leader William Pitt the Younger, upper right, have already been executed. That's what I call partisanship! British Museum, via Nynorsk Wikiwand (they had the best resolution). 

Nice piece wondering about the way we fetishize "bipartisanship", by the historian Nicole Hemmer at CNN's website, localizes the moment we're nostalgic for, when bipartisanship was apparently good in its own right:

For much of US history, bipartisanship was not lionized. It was only in the mid-20th century that bipartisan compromise began to confer a golden sheen on legislation. That's in part because it was more attainable, and because at times, the results were profoundly beneficial. The two major parties had become a mishmash of ideologies: there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and on the major issues of the day, bipartisanship made life-changing legislation possible. The Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights ActMedicare, Medicaid — all bipartisan.
    In the 1940s and 1950s, with the threat of totalitarianism looming large in the American imagination, there was something particularly beneficial to politicians about championing bipartisanship. It showed voters (along with foreign leaders and allies abroad) that American lawmakers followed a standard higher than simple party interests. Compromise elevated them to the ranks of technocratic statesmen (they were nearly all men) who were unencumbered by devotion to party, who were instead dedicated to higher ideals and first principles.

    I think that may be understating how weird that time was historically, and not quite healthy, and how much the very tenuousness of some of those accomplishments is related to the peculiarity of the situation.

    I've written a lot in the past about the evolution of the Democratic party from the end of the Civil War to the New Deal Coalition, which took place on two tracks, basically: on the one hand dominating the South as Jim Crow restricted the electorate to white people, as a conservative party looking back longingly on the power they wielded in the era of Jackson and Calhoun, and yet representing a rural and underdeveloped population in constant need of economic aid; and on the other hand thriving in the urban Northeast among the newer immigrant communities, a party above all of labor, and ready to be radical in alliance with radical intellectuals. 

    The Republicans, as the victors in the war, followed a kind of mirror image evolution into a similar incoherence: in the Northeast, abandoning their radicalism with the end of Reconstruction, leaving the business establishment as the main ideological engine, while in the rural Midwest, homesteading veterans of the war struggling to make a living found themselves susceptible to a different kind of radicalism, the prairie populist type, and for a short time a progressive coalition bringing them together with a certain type of elite represented by Theodore Roosevelt in opposition to business monopolies; but in the far West and Southwest, a different kind of rural existence—a landowner class dominating workers who mostly had no political rights, and fighting to control the water supply, developed a different kind of conservatism, a rejection of the concept of the commons. 

    The shock of the 1929 crash and subsequent depression may have traumatized the entire nation into a kind of bipartisanship during Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential term, and bills like the 1935 Social Security Act did indeed get plenty of votes (they also did, to the distress of Mrs. Roosevelt and the Democrats on the Popular Front edge, discriminate against Black workers, as you know), but that comity didn't last into the second term, when the division between the New Deal Coalition for the poor (including Black people, who began joining the Democrats in droves back then in spite of the conservatives) and the Republican Party for the rich became as partisan as it has ever been.

    And—this is the point I wanted to get to, sorry for having to wade through all this familiar material to arrive there—the bipartisanship Hemmer extols of the 1940s and 1950s wasn't exactly that at all: it was a fierce partisanship, split on the issue of civil rights, that wasn't yet reflected in the party system and is still with us, except that it has a name, now that all the liberals of different backgrounds have become Democrats and all the Southern white conservatives have become Republicans at last, alongside the ex-populists of the depopulated Plains and the rancher libertarians of the West. With the exception of members of the particularly white unions, who have diminished in force as many of the members have turned sort of conservative themselves, it's exactly the same two coalitions as fought in the 1950s, except now more or less all the multiculturals and multicultural-curious belong to one party and all the white conservatives in their ideological variety (libertarian, evangelical, populist) belong to the other one.

    It's not, in other words, the conventional story of how the two parties "switched" ideologies, but of how they more or less dissolved, over the century from around 1876 to 1976, and then reconstituted themselves into something more or less new.

    Which leaves us, at this point, where? I don't know, but I can tell you this: the reason we can't practice bipartisanship now isn't that we aren't nice people any more, like they were in the 1950s. It's that there's nobody in the other party to practice it with. No Everett Dirksens or Margaret Chase Smiths, and the Charlie Bakers or Lisa Murkowskis don't have any power beyond their own constituencies. 

    As a Democrat, I can say it's because everybody in the other party is now more or less completely wrong, and if I'm misreading them they're going to have to show me before I can trust them. And I reject the Murc's Law asymmetry according to which only I can make such a gesture and they can't be asked.

    And I'm sure Republicans have a parallel complaint about me, though of course they're wrong about that too.

    Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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