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Martin: What, exactly, does ‘bipartisanship’ really mean?

Margaret Martin//February 24, 2010

Martin: What, exactly, does ‘bipartisanship’ really mean?

Margaret Martin//February 24, 2010

Margaret Martin
Margaret Martin

We’ve been hearing a lot about the need for more bipartisanship in Congress—President Obama campaigned on a promise of more of it. Congressional leaders always call for it.

So do politicians in Minnesota: “Bipartisanship” has come up repeatedly in the rancorous, ongoing debate over the controversial bonding bill.

And pundits and former politicians decry its absence.

But what exactly is bipartisanship, and is it really such a good thing?

Genuine bipartisanship is characterized by competing political parties setting aside party differences and coming together to solve a commonly recognized problem. In the U.S., it’s the Democrats and Republicans.

And contrary to popular opinion, on many issues it’s fairly easily achieved. Plenty of problems addressed by government on a regular basis are dealt with in a bipartisan way.

Bipartisanship is easy to achieve in such matters as disaster relief and paying for the basic functions of government. Thousands of votes take place around the country in city councils, county commissions, state legislatures, and yes, even in Congress that do not divide along party lines.

These are, however, not votes where differences in principle dominate the discussion.

And there’s the rub.

Political parties exist for a reason, and it’s not just to have competing teams that fight to get elected. Citizens divide along party lines because they actually disagree on many of the big issues of the day, and those disagreements are based upon competing visions of how the world works, what kind of solutions are most likely to work, and in particular what the proper balance between the public and private sector should be.

Most importantly, party differences often reflect underlying disagreements about fundamental values and the role of government in promoting or protecting those values.

Partisanship, in other words, is not just about rooting for your team over the other guy’s.

Given that, calls for bipartisanship are often enough not invitations to engage in genuine and cordial discussions on how best to join together to tackle today’s problems. Instead, most calls for bipartisanship are in fact political cudgels used to paint the opposition as obstructionist rather than principled.

Rather than being invitations, such calls are accusations against the opposition that they are fighting merely to gain political power, not to do the right thing.

Of course, it’s true that politicians are looking for every political advantage to achieve power, especially in an election year. After all, it’s a lot easier to push your agenda when you are in power than when you are in the minority.

But the agendas of the Democrats and Republicans don’t differ by accident. Instead they reflect real and underlying disagreements that can’t be swept aside by elegant or imploring words.

Because of the United State’s unique political system, the major political parties are actually diverse coalitions. They were built up over time through the incorporation of political movements that started outside the parties and through their energy and durability becoming attractive enough voting blocks that one party or the other moved to embrace new issues to attract their votes.

That’s how the Democrat Party of Thomas Jefferson—as strong an advocate of a small federal government as there ever was—has gradually changed into the advocate of vigorous federal involvement in an ever-expanding sphere of influence.

And that’s how the Republican Party (with its roots in the assertion of federal power over the states in the abolition of slavery) became the party of limited government, federalism and traditional values.

In parliamentary systems, more and different parties would spring up to represent new political movements. In the U.S., the political parties themselves gradually change to reflect prevailing sentiments.

Today’s most obvious rising grassroots movement is the Tea Party, and Republicans have been the beneficiaries of their energy and growing popularity. And the tea party crowd is in no mood for compromise with the Democratic agenda of expanding government’s role in our lives, either through the increased regulation of the health care sector or increasing subsidies for failing businesses.

And so we have Republicans trying to block President Obama’s agenda in Washington, and the Republicans’ fierce battle with the DFL-led Legislature here in Minnesota.

It could be no other way, because choosing another path would be political suicide. Breaking faith with either your values or your constituency is bad enough; breaking faith with both is a path to ruin.

Of course, calls for bipartisanship don’t always mean “give up” or “give in” to the other party. Occasionally and more constructively, what is really at issue is a concern with growing incivility in the political debate.

Differences in principle are often characterized as reflecting impure motives, and when they are things can get ugly fast.

When arguments degenerate into accusations, nobody wins—especially the public. This happens all too often, because politics by its very nature is a competitive contest for power. Is it any wonder that the public often feels it’s forced to choose between the lesser of two evils?

A bit more civility would be a wonderful thing, but only if civility is not just a mask for the political class working together against the interests of their constituencies.

Ironically enough, the legitimacy of our political system is based entirely upon the vigorous competition of disparate groups.

With this in mind, let the battles begin!

Margaret Martin has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.A. from the London School of Economics. She is co-host of the Saturday morning radio program “The David Strom Show” on AM-1280. She blogs at and

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