Where's the Bipartisanship?

FEBRUARY 02, 2010

James Fallows had an interesting post yesterday called “Why bipartisanship can’t work.” Since it is a long post I’ll summarize the arguments as I see it:

  • Party discipline is difficult in American Politics because candidates raise their own money and can take the party label without the approval of the party. (Academics call this a “Weak” party system).
  • Passing law requires party discipline and/or bipartisanship.
  • Any law can be stopped if the minority party can enforce party discipline.
  • Therefore American Democracy (as opposed to parliamentary democracy) is dysfunctional.

It never ceases to amaze how much political positions are influenced by power relations. The minority party inevitably whines about bipartisanship while the majority party takes heat from its more committed members for making to much of it. The Democrats are now considering using the “nuclear option” on health care (I know it is official called “reconciliation”) when a few years ago they were castigating the GOP for threatening to use it on judicial nominations.

Fallows is essentially right on his analysis of the party system in America, but wrong on his conclusions. We do have a weak party system and an effective minority can stop just about any bill it wants. If legislation is going to be passed it must either be relatively inconsequential to the majority of Americans so that it does not inspire intense opposition or it must have the overwhelming support of the American public.

But Fallows doesn’t explain why this is a bad thing? He implies that the health care bill not passing is evidence of a failure of American Democracy, but doesn’t explain how the minority party is supposed to support a bill the vast majority of Americans do not like? In this case the minority party appears to be doing the bidding of the majority of Americans. And if we are proponents of democracy don’t we want the “will of the majority” to carry the day?

So by what measure is American Democracy dysfunctional in Fallows’ opinion? Because law can’t be passed against the will of the people? All democracies have moments of failure, but the healthcare reform saga is not one of them.

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