In a rare public statement on Saturday, former President George W. Bush urged Americans to come together in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” he said in a brief video. “In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together and we are determined to rise.” This was met with predictable responses: praise for his statesmanship from the mainstream press, condemnations of that praise and his legacy from the left, and whining from our current president.
Contra Trump, the choruses calling on Americans to set aside their differences in any given political situation are never really in need of additional members. And Bush is simply echoing a strain of commentary that has been popular since the coronavirus pandemic reached our shores. In a March Politico Magazine package, Columbia psychologist Peter Coleman speculated that the crisis could be the cure for political tribalism. “The extraordinary shock(s) to our system that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in,” he wrote, “and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality.” Representative Justin Amash, the ex-Republican and historical footnote-to-be, has justified his run for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination as a stand against a “partisan death spiral” that the pandemic has further exposed. Last Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wistfully unveiled a collage of face masks donated to New York from around the country. “A little bit more of this and a little less of the partisanship and the ugliness and this country will be a beautiful place,” he said.
But signs abound that polarization remains deep and strong, from the disparity in responses to the pandemic by Democratic and Republican state governments to the disparities in the measures Democratic and Republican voters have taken against the virus in their own lives. Still, extraordinary things have been happening on Capitol Hill—developments those always moaning and groaning about gridlock and intractable partisanship have been muted in celebrating. Democrats and Republicans have come together to allocate nearly $3 trillion to the coronavirus relief effort, the largest economic stimulus in American history. Tense sparring and argument has given way, four separate times within the last two months, to bipartisan agreement on wide-ranging, expensive, and consequential legislation—each bill reaching final passage with negligible opposition. The last was sent to Trump from the Democratic House on a 388–5 vote. Exactly one Democrat, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voted nay.
Beneath the disarray of the White House’s response and amid all the uncertainty the crisis has brought about, we’ve been treated to a legislative process straight out of a grade-school civics book. Democrats came into each negotiation with broad and expensive asks on relief programs and other priorities but compromised to get money out the door to the American people quickly. Republicans opposed to broadening eligibility for full stimulus payments and the generosity of the CARES Act’s unemployment benefits voted unanimously for the bill anyway. For the first time in a very long time, Democrats and Republicans sat down, agreed to policy compromises a little disappointing to both sides, and passed a series of massive bills addressing significant problems facing the American people. This may be bipartisanship’s finest hour in at least a generation, and members of Congress would have been within their rights to expect high hosannas from every editorial board in the country. They haven’t arrived. Why not?
One reason might be that the bipartisan bills Congress has passed are pitiful—too meager and poorly designed to stop our plunge toward chaos and economic oblivion. Spending and investment across major sectors of the economy have collapsed and will remain deflated as long as the virus is circulating and discouraging normal economic activity. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that gross domestic product won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2022 at the earliest. Our 30 million unemployed are struggling to wring benefits from intentionally complex and unprecedentedly overburdened state unemployment systems. One in four Americans is expected to go hungry. Minorities who saw their wealth disproportionately destroyed by the recession just over a decade ago will see it destroyed again.
Some of the largest initiatives in Congress’s relief packages include one-time stimulus checks that will take months for the IRS to finish distributing, an unemployment benefit that will expire in July, and a broken small business loan program. Many renters still face eviction. The U.S. Postal Service is still running out of money. The integrity of November’s election is still in jeopardy. State and local government finances are still in crisis. To top it all off, Republican states are considering winnowing aid to force people back to work, and Republicans on the Hill are signaling that the window for large bills may be closing.
We should understand something critical about the large bills that we’ve managed to pass: Bipartisanship has not gotten us where we need to be, and was never going to. A political system at least half-dominated by a party focused on reducing the government’s capacity to act will never respond to a crisis demanding large expansions in public spending or state power adequately. Our legislative response has obviously been insufficient. It has also been the very best response anyone could have expected with Republicans holding the upper hand and within the political model of compromise and negotiation promoted by most of the political press, most political campaigns, and most of our civics classes. This is what bipartisanship often looks like. This is the ideal we are always being told to strive for.
What would it actually take for the government to “get out as much money to as many people as quickly as possible,” as the New York Times editorial board urged last month? For starters, you would need a Democratic president and a Democratic supermajority in Congress willing to steamroller over objections from the right and deny Republican lawmakers a meaningful amount of influence over legislation. This is not the kind of policymaking the most broadly respected voices in political commentary tend to endorse, and no one has ever been admitted into the canon of hallowed ex-presidents for saying we should smash our opponents. Abraham Lincoln did it violently, but the public hazily remembers him as a bridger of divides: This, we’re taught, is how good leaders solve problems. But we cannot hoist ourselves out of the hole we’re in now or address any other issue demanding major public investment by mutual partisan agreement. Everyone knows it. Few at the center of political discourse say it. Instead, even now, they pine for a great coming together—some sunny day when Democrats and Republicans, animated by a national crisis, or public service, or some quasi-spiritual awakening, might deign to work together once again. Well, they just have, and they’ve failed.
There’s always a shyness about talking up what bipartisanship actually manages to achieve, and for good reason. Its other major accomplishments over the last quarter-century or so in federal policymaking include the Iraq War, the crime bill, cuts to welfare programs, financial deregulation, and the Defense of Marriage Act. Adding the coronavirus relief effort thus far gets you a list of initiatives that have been subpar at best and unfathomably destructive at worst. Conversely, many of the developments that we now recognize as progress in this country—grants of freedom, dignity, and equality to various groups, the creation of many programs and policies we now take for granted—were the products of overwhelming partisan or ideological majorities, executive actions, and court orders as often (or more often) than they were the products of mutual, willful compromise between bitter opponents. Of all the lies politicians tell, the notion that progress can only happen if we come together as moral and political equals is possibly our favorite. It is the lie we most want to be true because it is the lie that brings the rest of the lies we tell ourselves about our country and our history into coherence.
As long as it serves that purpose, appeals to bipartisanship and compromise will continue to pad out columns and fill out the speeches of figures with nothing else to say—those who need to convince voters, readers, and themselves that they bear commitments to loftier, more flattering ambitions than the ones implied by their actions and the policies they support. However mediocre or actively counterproductive the average politician’s platform might seem, they can always claim that they want to bring about a united America—one of the few grand projects most Americans agree with. Since the pandemic struck, more and more voices in the press have tried to merge it with a more substantive project—repairing the inequities and deficiencies the crisis has exposed in our economy, our institutions, and our way of life.
But what we build after the crisis, if we build anything at all, won’t be built together. Ideological differences entirely aside, there’s no particular reason why a party led by a man thinking aloud about the merits of bleach injections should have a hand in crafting the next New Deal or Great Society. A recent Times column from Frank Bruni, perhaps the thousandth in its genre, asked whether the Republican Party’s willingness to indulge the president might truly be bottomless. “[F]rom the start of his presidency, I have waited, in all my optimism and innocence, for a pause in the cycle,” Bruni wrote. “For the moment when Republican lawmakers realize that to prop up Trump is to take down America.” While he and similarly minded pundits continue their wait, the rest of us should hold fast to reality. Nothing worth happening is going to happen without an epochal realignment of political power in America—one that sees the Republican Party defeated and disempowered in November, in the next decade, and forever. We’ve tried bipartisanship. We’ve tried conservative governance. Now we must work to give progressive hegemony a chance.