Political parties aren’t written into the Constitution. They came about almost organically as members of President Washington’s Cabinet jockeyed for power. After the first election in which parties truly threatened to bifurcate the Republic, the new President said, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Ever since Thomas Jefferson spoke those words in his inaugural address, the following 41 Presidents have duly followed his example, for their own selfish reasons as much as any other. Men gestured toward working with non-allies to increase their own power.
Among the many, many ways that the 45th President has differed from all of his predecessors, his contempt for bipartisanship has gotten lost in the shuffle. The media doesn’t write about it, which is odd, because the media represents bipartisanship in their constant bothsidesism. The promise of a businessman-president who could look past previous animosities and unlock Capitol Hill Gordian knots – did that not imply, if not bipartisanship, then less ideological warfare? Isn’t that what his voters wanted? Now that the supposedly “postpartisan” Trump has pulled a complete 180 and outsourced all of his policies to the most right-wing of Republicans, can you blame fans of bipartisanship for a deepened bitterness?
(And oh yes, there are fans of bipartisanship, in the same way that there are fans of family reunions during which no family member gets in a physical brawl. Whatever their deeply held beliefs, people often like to see people getting along.)
Make no mistake, bipartisanship is becoming about as frequent as smoking in an elevator. It’s true that America was divided before, but it really is different now, just as the world was melting before, but the cracks are really new in Antarctica now. Reagan and Bush were pals with Democrats in a way that Obama wasn’t a pal of any Republican. Clinton and Gingrich worked together to balance the budget. Bush II worked with Kennedy pre-9/11, half of elected Democrats after that dark day. Obama, as mentioned, wasn’t chummy with John Boehner or any other GOPer, but he formally courted Republican support on every major initiative from recession recovery to health care to immigration.
2017 is different. As we come upon the year’s halfway point, President Trump has neither formally nor informally asked for non-Republican support on a single thing. The man is privately and publicly determined to expand his circle of enemies, not friends. We’re in a scorched-earth world, a zero-sum game where one’s loss is the other’s gain. And I personally believe that the relentless brinkmanship is an underrated, understated reason for the frustration that currently courses, as Bob Dylan once sang, “from the Grand Cooley Dam to the Capitol.” Republicans are frustrated, telling talk shows that they could be gracious if even one Democrat would consider repealing the ACA. Democrats are frustrated, losing elections and tired of being tweeted like a punching bag. The media is frustrated, yet has been characterized as more partisan (and thus less popular) than ever. The electorate is frustrated. How can this many “smart” people understand the problem of an absence of bipartisanship, and so few of them do anything about it?
We all know why, but that barely relieves the frustration. Somehow we’re playing in a Kabuki drama, or a “Truman Show”, that we can’t re-script. Or if you prefer a classic animal analogy, Republicans, Democrats, and the media are the scorpions, stinging us frogs (the people) as we all go down. The Republicans have an entirely toxic brand – except that Democrats and the media’s brands are even more toxic. In their separate scorpion-frog stings, both the Democrats and Republicans have their own reasons to believe that they’ll be the last ones swimming at the end. Even if that is true, they’re not going to like their world without frogs (people who listen to them).
The Capitol shooting that wounded four, including Representative Steve Scalise, at first seemed a balm for fans of less partisan rancor. Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appeared together on camera for the first time as the Democrats and the Republicans played a charity baseball game. However, within 24 hours, both “teams” were sniping at each other again for the increase in violent rhetoric, a return to animosity that the media smugly, and correctly, predicted.
I believe one reason that the media doesn’t cover the low ebb of bipartisanship (despite bipartisanship being the media’s natural state) is that the situation is so entirely depressing. We had something like a populist revolt in 2016, and it only resulted in a right-wing hijacking, evidenced by the fact that not a single policy Trump has proposed could possibly command greater than 40% support with the electorate. Those of us who want bipartisanship, or better parties, or just something closer to the wishes of the majority (on policies that do not abridge rights, e.g. taxes, health care, immigration, the environment), have fewer answers than we did a year ago. So there’s no natural through-line here, no way to end this story on a note of hope.
Nonetheless, I want to end this on a potential Hail-Mary Pass for bipartisan, populist, majority-approved solutions. Trump’s stated hero, whose portrait has been restored to the Oval Office, is President Andrew Jackson. Jackson and his Democrats basically destroyed what was then called the National Republican Party. After six years, in fierce opposition to the Trump-like Jackson, they re-formed and made a broader coalition called the Whig Party. Now, it’s true that the Whigs lost a few elections, although they did win the first one in which they ran a single candidate, William Henry Harrison. But after a few fits and starts, the nationalist, centrist Whigs eventually became the Republican Party. So am I saying that the Democrats should re-christen themselves the Whigs?
Nah, maybe the Populists.