Bipartisanship—good or bad?

by Dean Briggs

Bipartisanship isn’t always beneficial.

A majority of Americans favor House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ (D-NY) recent support for a bill that Freedom Caucus member/hostage and House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) put forward to help fund the war in Ukraine. And Senators Chuck Shumer (D-NY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) shepherded the Ukraine bill to a resounding 79:18 victory.

But the successful bipartisan effort led by Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senate Republicans to kill the climate-friendly elements of President Biden’s economic package was widely derided by Progressives. 

And take former Arizona Democratic Senator and now Independent Kyrsten Sinema. Please. The failed bipartisan Democrat worked with Republicans to block: a higher federal minimum wage, voting rights legislation, and tax increases for the ultrawealthy. This left her a politician without a party. 

Recently deceased Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) was eulogized for many things, including his conservatism and bipartisanship. He faithfully supported Republican President George W. Bush and continued to repeat his lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after they had been disproved. He also supported suppression of civil liberties under the USA Patriot Act, as well as other conservative post-9/11 priorities of the time. 

Journalist Jeet Heer deftly articulates the obvious: “The unreflecting use of ‘bipartisan’ as a positive term ignores the fact that really bad policies, as well as good ones, can be advanced when politicians work across party lines.”

Democracy is messy and unsettling.

What do citizens think about bipartisanship? Research shows that they like it but are frequently uncomfortable with the acrimony, messiness, and rhetoric of the democratic process. They do not necessarily understand how democracy works – with loud noise and contending ideas at its core. So bipartisanship looks like a more harmonious path. Of course, citizens are most in favor of bipartisanship when it ensures that their personal policy agendas become law.

Bipartisan myths abound. 

The center- and right-leaning political scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein, with their own questions about the value of bipartisanship, penned a provocative essay that identified the following myths:

  • Myth No. 1: Bipartisanship was the norm through most of U.S. history.
    It has come and gone over time. The period from 1930-1970 was one of the most bipartisan periods, as conservative Republicans and southern Democrats worked together to preserve racist Jim Crow laws in the south.
  • Myth No. 2: The partisan divide is driven by policy.
    Mann and Ornstein note that, “more than specific policies, strong tribal identities and intense competition for control of government drive our partisan polarization.” The more one side favors a policy, the less the other side likes it and may even change sides.
  • Myth No. 3: Bipartisanship is more valued by voters than by politicians.
    But which voters? Less-informed voters, who are generally in the majority, like the harmony of bipartisanship. Voters who are better informed, and generally in the minority, tend to be more partisan and don’t want their side “consorting with the enemy.”
  • Myth No. 4: Major policy changes require bipartisanship.
    Sometimes yes, often no. And in times of “bitter partisan warfare and rhetoric,” bipartisanship can decline – requiring, perforce – a majority on one side or the other to get things done. A good example has been efforts to pass and defend Obamacare.
Republicans are far less bipartisan than Democrats, both in seeking co-sponsorship of their bills, or in co-sponsoring the other party’s bills. Shown here: bipartisanship scores and rankings, for the fifty lowest-scoring Representatives in the House. 
  • Myth No. 5: The two major national parties are equally to blame for partisan squabbles.
    Mann and Ornstein believe that today’s partisan polarization began after the mid-1970s with racial and cultural shifts in the coalitional bases of the parties. Republicans – with “increasingly homogeneous positions on race, religious traditionalism, and other cultural issues – had more incentive to move right than Democrats had to move left.” In the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and his allies fomented tribalism. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) later “turned the filibuster into a weapon of mass obstruction and got his party to unite against every Obama initiative.”

Despite these misconceptions, bipartisanship will continue to have a place in our strongly two-party system. Political science research shows that bipartisanship is more effective than partisanship in passing bills. What is the takeaway for Progressives? The flaws with bipartisanship aside, we need to keep our eyes on the prize and work with the other side to get at least some of the things we want.