Joe Biden’s nostalgia for a bipartisan era is misplaced
US Politics: The job of politics is to contain differences, not to pretend they don’t exist
Joe Biden: To his mind, Republicans and Democrats feud more out of muscle memory than principle. Photograph: Randall Hill/Reuters
At no point in Romeo and Juliet does Shakespeare explain the “ancient grudge” between the Montagues and the Capulets. The great seer into the soul leaves us to infer that hatred is self-renewing. Humans do not need specifiable reasons to fight each other.
Joe Biden’s English can be unShakespearean (“jobs”, he once said, is a “three-letter word”) but the former US vice-president sees something of fair Verona in Washington. To his mind, Republicans and Democrats feud more out of muscle memory than principle. He pines for the businesslike comity of yesteryear and aims to restore it if he becomes president in 2020. Barack Obama rose to national fame with a similar commitment 15 years ago. No conscientious leader could wish for anything less.
But then no conscientious leader could pretend it is even remotely viable. It has become customary in the US to urge “bipartisanship” as though it were just a question of tone and goodwill. The implication is that Americans have much in common on matters of substance, only to be funnelled into rival sects by a rotten political process. It is certainly easier than admitting that some citizens are relaxed about, say, the demographic trend away from European descendants, while others feel raw pangs of dispossession about it.
Politicians make any ideological rifts worse than they need to be with foul rhetoric and legislative intransigence
All democracies have their schisms but not all have recognisably “liberal” and “conservative” judges on their highest court, or the politicisation of something as dry as the census. As for star-cross’d lovers, a 2018 survey for the Atlantic found that 45 per cent of Democrats would be somewhat or very unhappy if their child married a Republican.
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Differences of this kind cannot be overcome by giving it the old college try. Yet that hope continues to bewitch people as smart as South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, an emollient sort who identifies “language” as what separates Americans, who otherwise share “values”.
Another version of the same naivety blames the cleaving of the US on Fox News (average primetime audience: 2.4 million) or Facebook (as if Republicans and Democrats were high-fiving each other before 2004) or the uncompetitive congressional districts thrown up by gerrymandering. The pattern here is wishful thinking. The American house is not divided against itself, according to this analysis, but the plumbing and mechanics cause needless tiffs. We need some technical maintenance, is all. How comforting and implausible.
No doubt, politicians make any ideological rifts worse than they need to be with foul rhetoric and legislative intransigence. But they are not magicking them out of nothing. Theirs is the narcissism of big differences.
Whether the locus of division is Washington or the street, there has been lots of it since at least the early 19th century
Nor was there ever much of an Eden to restore. Biden glows with nostalgia for the mid-20th century Washington of liberal Republicans and southern Democrats, of alliances to Get Things Done. He makes less of the urban riots and war protests that were costing lives at the same time. In other words, the fraternal give-and-take of Capitol Hill was never proof of underlying national unity. It was something of a veneer, and it was going to peel off in time.
The animus of recent decades is not all that exceptional. Whether the locus of division is Washington or the street, there has been lots of it since at least the early 19th century. Even if we leave aside a civil war that killed roughly 2 per cent of the population, there was intense resistance to the New Deal. There was inter-ethnic strife at the turn of the last century. The togetherness of the republic did not first come into question circa 1994. If anything, the disunity that has metastasised since then seems benign to anyone taking a longer view.
Ducking or deferring
And even the bipartisanship that did exist in the past was often achieved by not doing things, by ducking or deferring questions as fraught as the housing and voting rights of some citizens. Who would now argue that the US was better for such prevarication? Who would put the civility of the process over the outcome? Was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which enabled the Vietnam war, any wiser for being near-unanimous in its congressional support?
Anyone who has fallen out with friends over politics in recent years, having once associated such behaviour with bores and fanatics, has learnt something. Some beliefs, it turns out, really are irreconcilable. The job of politics is to contain them, lest they spill into civil disorder. It cannot aspire to do much more. It cannot always even finesse them into constructive legislation that splits the difference. The promise of bipartisanship is always and everywhere rousing to hear. That does not make it any less of a fool’s errand. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019