On the Importance of Bipartisanship

The Modern Survival Guide #39

Are you an AmeriCAN or an AmeriCAN’T? That’s a pun, or play on words ;). I crack myself up.

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But I do try to consider them from all angles, because in this edition we’re talking about bipartisanship. Specifically, why it’s a necessary thing and why it is so. damn. hard.

Let’s start with an assertion: your survival and standard of living are tied to the success of the nation in which you live. That’s easy enough to agree on, right? If you don’t believe me, go look at Venezuela. And since we live in a democracy of sorts in America,¹ that means that our survival and standard of living are tied to the capabilities of our representatives. That means it’s important to pick the right representatives.

In this article I’m going to give you some voting advice. If that’s not your cup of tea, here’s a video of funny cats. I hope you enjoy it, and good luck to you. For the rest of you, the advice boils down to this: if a candidate can’t work with enough other politicians to get things done… don’t vote for them.

I say this because the proper operation of a democracy relies on this elusive quality called “compromise.” I know, it’s not something you hear a lot about these days, but democracies only work if enough people in the government can come around the table like reasonable humans and figure out commonly acceptable solutions to national problems. In modern times, this is called “bipartisan legislation,” and it’s vanishing from the American political scene.

It is worth noting that our system of democracy is explicitly designed to make it difficult to pass laws.² It’s also worth noting that extremist political leanings are on the rise currently (everyone hates the establishment), partially as an unintended consequence of a gridlocked legislative system. As a result, it is more important now than normal for people to elect politicians who are capable of compromise.

Modern political culture makes this an incredibly difficult task. It is almost impossible for conservative and liberal lawmakers to come together on any substantive issue anymore, resulting in a constant emergency culture in modern legislation. In part this is due to the aforementioned disappearance of the political center, but it’s more directly due to the fact that politicians are not rewarded for reaching across the aisle. Many of us would rather see nothing happen than make a compromise on a single core issue, and we vote accordingly.

But folks, government dysfunction is not a good thing for the country, and keeping the government workable is very, very, very relevant to your survival and the maintenance of your standard of living. This means that a gridlocked partisan government, while entertaining, is toxic to the national good.

And it’s our fault. That’s the real kicker, the bit that no one really wants to acknowledge. We elect our politicians; their behavior is on us. And increasingly, we hate it — satisfaction with Congress as a whole is very low, because they aren’t solving national issues. And they aren’t solving national issues because they can’t work together, because we don’t vote for them when they do.

This is a problem. More specifically, it’s your problem. There is no getting away from personal responsibility in this one; if you’re a citizen and you vote, you voted for these clowns (or at least your clown). So with that in mind, here’s a little checklist that you can take to the next election to help you decide whether a candidate will actually be able to do work.³

  1. Are they on record demonizing their opposition? If they are, maybe don’t vote for them.
  2. Do they espouse trigger policies?⁴ If so, to what degree? If they keep hammering something the other side hates to the exclusion of other issues, maybe don’t vote for them.
  3. Do they have “red line” issues that they are unwilling to compromise on at all? If they can’t even listen to a proposal on these subjects, maybe don’t vote for them.
  4. Do they have a voting record? If so, does it show any record of bipartisan votes? If it does, maybe they deserve your vote.
  5. Have they publicly stated willingness to work with the other party? If they’re serious, maybe they deserve your vote.
  6. Do they derive a significant portion of their campaign funds from special interests (i.e., single-interest organizations like the NRA)? If they do, maybe they don’t deserve your vote.
  7. Do they have significant political baggage? Do their opponents gain or lose points in their party for working with them? If they’re a poison pill for the other party, maybe you shouldn’t vote for them.

There are a few things to note here. Number one, these are all subjective measures. You’re going to need a little bit of political literacy to make these judgments, and you’re going to have to invest a little bit of work into figuring out the checklist for each politician. It’s important to recognize this and then treat the exercise as a time investment.

Number two, I say “maybe” a lot. Politics is a realm of grey areas; some of these things may be acceptable some of the time. There are some red line issues, for example, that are totally legitimate — you don’t want to vote for the guy who, just to take a random example, can’t decide whether or not a free press is a good thing. The point of the checklist isn’t to give you a binary metric; it’s just to make you think about each point.

Number three, you’ll notice that these points really don’t work as well in the general elections — by that point, especially in modern elections, you may be stuck between the choice of a snake and a scorpion. Both candidates may already be committing some of the bad stuff from the checklist, in other words. Instead, these are things you should keep in mind for the primaries.

The primaries, for those of you who are totally unfamiliar with American politics, are where political parties select the candidates they will run in general elections. They are usually, but not always, dominated by incumbents — the officials already in office — if the party has an incumbent in the race. Otherwise it’s open season; anyone can run, and upsets are always possible. Primaries are where you go to get a sea change.

Therefore, to ensure that you are voting for a candidate who is capable of working with others, it is imperative that you vote in primaries. The extremist candidates already know this; the TEA Party, for example, has made enormous gains by influencing primary candidates. To make sure the nation survives and thrives, you have to do this too.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s always tempting to vote for extremist candidates; they’re the ones who offer everything on a silver platter. But by the same token, they’re the candidates who are least likely to be able to actually work in Congress. Let’s take an example.

I know that Bernie Sanders is an icon of the current political left. But his Senate record is pretty sparse; he’s written a total of three bills that became laws in his decades-long career. The darling of the righteous left he may be, but his effectiveness as an elder statesman is doubtful, and his inability to compromise enough to work with others is part of the problem. Compare that to three members of the 114th Congress who passed, between them, more than twenty bills in two years. This was a record setting event, but it kind of makes the point. These people were capable of working the system. Bernie Sanders, for many, many reasons, was not.

Now at this point, some of you (perhaps most of you) are legitimately shouting “BUT WHAT ABOUT THEIR PRINCIPLES???” Am I seriously asking you to vote for someone who would agree to something you fundamentally oppose? Am I seriously saying you can’t realistically elect a candidate to look after your particular interests?

No. No I’m not. But I am saying that it’s very unlikely under a more bipartisan atmosphere that you will always get everything that you want. The whole point of compromise is that both sides have to be able to give a little in order to achieve something satisfactory. Otherwise the system becomes, well, a lot like what we have now: a bunch of people loudly declaiming that the other side is the agent of Satan because they are/aren’t in favor of (insert wedge issue here).

Project management disciplines have a phrase for this: don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” It is valid and laudable to strive for perfection. But it’s also incredibly important to know when something is good enough, because perfection is unattainable. Democracies, by their very nature, are designed to be imperfect. They are designed to be “good enough.” So my advice to you is that, on a fundamental level, it’s time to stop expecting politicians to deliver everything your personal ideology demands.

Does this take away the allure of some rock-star-status politicians? It sure does. It leaves most of the political landscape a little less entertaining. But folks, politics isn’t supposed to be entertaining. It’s supposed to be the drudge work of keeping a society running. When politics becomes entertaining, it’s a sign that something is going horribly, horribly wrong.

So please — vote for the candidate who can work with others. Vote for the person who can actually move pieces of your agenda forward, and don’t punish them so hard for not delivering the whole tamale. Politics is the art of the possible. Winning everything all the time is not possible, and if someone tells you it is, they’re lying or deluded. And we don’t need any more delusional liars in high office in this country. So swallow your pride and outrage, hold your nose, and vote for the candidate who is good enough.

¹And please don’t pipe up with the “America is a republic, not a democracy!” line. I hear this all the time now when people want to make a pedantic point, and it drives me nuts. A republic is a form of democracy. Look it up.

²What did you think a bicameral legislature was FOR? The founders were paranoid about governmental control and made it difficult to pass laws by enshrining a three-part approval system. Part of the rationale was to ensure that only those laws truly necessary for the public good would get passed; the unintended consequence is that a lot of good legislation dies on the vine.

³Note that I make no guarantee of their personal sagacity; this will just help you weed out the yahoos who shouldn’t be anywhere near government.

⁴A “trigger policy” is a new phrase I just made up. This is simply a policy that triggers an immediate negative response from the opposing party.

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