Senator Evan Bayh announced his retirement this week, denouncing the fierce partisanship in Washington. Instead of solving problems, the politicians on both sides of the aisle play political games, and Senator Bayh simply didn’t feel it worth his efforts to remain. And while the Democrats are arguably the most visibly hurt by his decision, Bayh’s condemned the “ideologues” on each side of the aisle.
It’s easy to say there needs to be bi-partisanship, but it’s harder to figure out how it should look. It certainly should not be the two parties coming together in some kind of grand coalition to embrace a common reform package and pat each other on the back. The parties represent different perspectives on politics and society (with sometimes intense internal divisions), and that is a good thing. Artificial unanimity would be at least as bad as bitter partisanship. The problem is not partisanship, but the role of “ideologues.”
An ideologue is someone whose world view is shaped by a particular theory of how the world works. Ideologues interpret reality through their ideology. The more unwilling they are to consider the possibility that their interpretation might be wrong (or incomplete) because of real world evidence, the more ideological they are.
This happens across the political spectrum. For instance, a believer in free markets might dismiss all problems that currently exist in market systems as being there because the market is not “completely free.” All real world evidence, all counter arguments, everything can be dismissed as irrelevant because the lack of a truly free market means that they can blame everything on whatever level of governmental regulation exists. Such a view is not rational, but it does serve to protect ones’ belief from having to deal with real world evidence. It is theory protected from reality.
Socialists similarly dismiss problems with bureaucracy and the dangers of big government by citing the existence of capitalism. Much like the free market ideologue, the socialist ideologue defends his or her world view by positing the existence of capitalism as the real cause for corruption and abuse of power. Their views are also articles of faith, protected from real world evidence.
Having an ideology is NOT the same as being an ideologue. For instance, a believer in free markets who looks at real world evidence and concludes ‘I believe free markets function best, but in certain cases regulation is necessary’ shows a level of pragmatism. Pragmatism here means the ability to take real world evidence seriously in critiquing ideology and solving problems. In essence it is recognition that ideologies are simplified ‘rules of thumb’ that cannot be universally applied without risk of error. So if there are two types of politicians — ideologues and pragmatists — they themselves form a spectrum. The point where a ‘weak ideologue’ becomes a ‘weak pragmatist’ is fuzzy. Politics could not function well with pure ideologues or pure pragmatists running the show. Pure ideologues cannot compromise and would end up fighting ideological jihads over policy goals. Pure pragmatists would compromise quickly and consider too narrow a variety of potential actions or policies.
I recently compared bi-partisanship to diplomacy. The nationalist (ideologue) wants to put his or her country first, and reject diplomacy and compromise. When this happens, you get catastrophic foreign policies, something the US learned in the Iraq war. The alternative of simply ‘getting along’ with everyone and giving in quickly would lead a country to hurt itself on the world stage and be played the patsy. In the world of foreign affairs, the proper balance is often called “realism” — you fight for the best deal for your state, and compromise based on a realistic assessment of power, interest, and the consequences of choices made.
Good bi-partisanship would approach issues that way. As with diplomacy, it would be important to define the issues specifically and, instead of ‘national interest,’ look at different ideological perspectives as the areas in which disputes can arise. All sides will want to maximize their ability to achieve what is in line with their perspective, but recognize that they won’t get all they want. They would search for agreement on problems that need to be solved (e.g., the need to reign in health care costs, help cover those who can’t find insurance, the need to cut debt, etc.), and forge possible compromise solutions. Just as compromises between states reflect power differentials in international affairs, bi-partisan compromises would reflect similar real world conditions. The Democrats have majorities, which they will try to use to get the best deal they can; the Republicans will point out divisions amongst Democrats and the likelihood of GOP gains in the fall elections. Ultimately, the two sides would have to realistically assess how far to push.
Most importantly, however, they need to remember that the key is not to win elections, but to govern. Ideologues have the fantasy that if only they stick to principle, they’ll sometime win it all and be able to implement their pure program. Yet from Bush’s majorities a decade ago to the Democrats dominance now, no party has been able to achieve that — and when they become too ideological, the other party bounces back. The public does not like ideology, the public prefers problem solvers. Second, democracy is premised on the idea that compromise and pragmatism is the best path towards policy making. It requires real listening, not just scoring political points. Therein rests Bayh’s real complaint — politicians now seem more concerned about politics than governance. The serious business of solving very deep problems that threaten to severely weaken this country gets trumped by political posturing for the next election. In that atmosphere ideologues are rewarded for being “principled,” even if those so-called principles really reflect unreflective ideological conviction. Those who would compromise are derided as “RINOs” or “traitors,” even if they are trying to figure out how to do at least something to work on the problems facing the country.
At base bi-partisanship does not mean anti-partisan. It literally means two partisan groups figuring out how to come to some agreement on how to solve problems, recognizing neither side will be completely happy with the action. It means that even as laws are passed, the debate and discussion continue — no one ever truly wins, no compromise is ever final. It also means that each side recognizes that they do not hold a monopoly on truth, both sides operate on good faith. It means rejecting the kind of personal attacks and venom that too often percolate within the political discourse. It’s only possible when political disagreement is not a cause for personal dislike or disgust. Bayh’s departure indicates that he does not think the politicians in Washington are capable of that kind of productive partisan cooperation. He may be right.