Joe Biden ran for president promising to “revive” the spirit of bipartisanship, put an end to factional battles, and bring Americans together after an era of painful division. Yet faced with an intransigent, extremist Republican Party that has little to gain from compromise, such a vision of politics seems quaint at best. On Episode 26 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene look into the history of bipartisanship as an ideal. The show features Paul Blest, a co-founder of Discourse Blog; Ed Burmila, the author of a forthcoming book on the mistakes of the Democratic Party; Osita Nwanevu, a staff writer at The New Republic; and Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University. Does bipartisanship have a future in American politics? And, more to the point, should it?
Paul Blest: Delaware has this tradition that two days after Election Day, every Election Day, politicians get together and bury a literal hatchet in Southern Delaware. There’s this idea that Delaware is so small that you can get everybody in the room together and they can fix any problem, and Delaware has always been a state that prides itself on that.
Laura Marsh: That’s the politics writer Paul Blest talking about the “Delaware Way,” and how Joe Biden’s early career in the state shaped his approach to politics.
Paul: And it’s not just Joe Biden. Tom Carper, another senator from Delaware; John Carnegie, the current governor and a former congressman—they’ve also built their careers on this idea that they can work across the aisle, whether that’s with very conservative Democrats in the 1970s, as Biden did, or with Republicans, working together to get things done.
Alex Pareene: Today we’re talking about bipartisanship.
Laura: When did bipartisanship become such an important value in American politics?
Alex: How did it take on such importance for Joe Biden?
Laura: And in today’s polarized world, does it have a future?
Alex: I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at The New Republic.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh, the magazine’s literary editor.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Joe Biden ran for president making one promise that set him apart from his rivals for the Democratic nomination: He, and maybe only he, would be able to revive an increasingly endangered Washington tradition—bipartisanship.
[Clip of Joe Biden speaking]: We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship as a country. I know that sounds bizarre in light of where we are—the spirit of being able to work with one another. When I say that, and I said that from the time I announced, I was told that maybe that’s the way things used to work: Joe, you got a lot done before, Joe, but you can’t do that anymore. Well, I’m here to tell you and say we can.
Alex: There’s been plenty of debate on how realistic Biden’s promise was, whether “we can.” There’s been a bit less discussion of why we should. Is bipartisanship an ideal to strive for? A tool to achieve particular political goals? A completely discredited concept? And what does a politician like Joe Biden actually mean when he refers to it?
Laura: We wanted to figure out where Biden’s particular attachment to bipartisanship came from. So we talked to Paul Blest, who’s written about Biden’s background as a senator in Delaware. Paul suggested that it has a lot to do with Delaware’s history as a Republican stronghold.
Paul: When Joe Biden was first elected, Delaware was a pretty Republican state. It was one of the classic mid-Atlantic northeastern states that were run by mostly by moderate, pro-business Republicans. Biden was one of the first Democrats elected as a senator from Delaware in quite some time.
Alex: Delaware—we know it’s a small state. I mean, it’s a tax haven, right? Delaware is where all these corporations incorporate themselves.
Paul: Yes, it’s definitely an onshore tax haven. Biden was known as the senator from MBNA.
Alex: MBNA was, for years, a major issuer of credit cards.
Paul: When he was a senator back in the ’90s, he authored a lot of legislation that was very friendly to financial interests, credit card companies. He wrote in the legislation that you couldn’t discharge student loans in bankruptcy. Banks loved him for that stuff. And that’s the unspoken thing about Delaware politics—the thing that was uniting everybody wasn’t really the sense that we can all get along because we’re from a small state, it was that everybody in Delaware recognizes how important the financial industry is, and being a corporate tax haven essentially gives the state the funding it needs to be a functional state and state government.
Alex: And just to make it really explicit, the idea here—and I think this is true of a couple other Eastern states in a way that’s less true of the rest of the country—the idea was that for years, it didn’t really matter who the voters elected to put into power, because there would be a sort of informal, moderate power-sharing agreement between all these broadly pro-business politicians on both sides of the aisle. So the partisan gap in a state like Delaware didn’t matter as much as it might have otherwise.
Paul: Yeah. It’s changed in recent years, but for Joe Biden’s entire career, that’s basically how it’s been.
Laura: So when Joe Biden leaves Delaware and goes off to join the U.S. Senate, what kinds of things does he start doing that continue this Delaware Way?
Paul: So one of his central issues, once he got into the Senate, became busing desegregation. And in Delaware, that was a very, very controversial issue. You know, Biden had never really been given much of a chance when he first ran for Senate. He was just a county councilman in the early ’70s when he ran for Senate and beat an incumbent senator. And so Republicans very much made this a major issue in the first couple of years. So he was in the Senate, and by the time 1975 or 1976 rolls around, he’s working not just across the aisle with Republicans, he’s working with very conservative Democrats against busing desegregation, and not just in Delaware, but in places like Florida. And then he gets into the ’80s, and he’s working with Strom Thurmond on criminal justice legislation, basically the forerunner to the crime bill. So very early on, he stakes out a claim. There’s a Philadelphia Inquirer profile of him in 1974 or 1975 where he’s talking about George Wallace as somebody that the Democrats should look to as somebody who tells it like it is.
Laura: George Wallace was the former governor of Alabama and a committed segregationist.
Paul: He’s not explicitly embracing George Wallace. But he’s saying the Democrats need to get back to common sense and away from this idea that liberals can save everybody. He literally calls himself one of the “new liberals.” I think there’s another word for that.
Alex: And that seems really important, too, because at the time in that very early ’70s period, to be a person who sells yourself as bridging the gap, it’s not strictly about, “I can work with Republicans.” It was easier to work with certain Republicans at the time than it would have been to work with certain Democrats. It was not even just “I can be bipartisan.” It was, “I can find the middle ground, I can figure out what I can work with in the other side”—with the other side being incredibly conservative Southern Democrats.
Paul: Exactly. The famous knock against him now is that he gave the eulogy at Strom Thurmond’s funeral, and there was a reason for that—he considered himself a friend of Strom Thurman. He considered himself a friend of James Eastland, the deeply conservative Mississippi Democrat who was a staunch opponent of desegregation. He aligned himself with these people not just on fringe issues, on issues that related to segregation. The criminal justice reform bill was bipartisan, welfare reform was bipartisan, deregulation of the financial system—all of these things were bipartisan, and we look at them as horrible now, they’re pretty widely accepted as bad. And that’s how he made a name for himself—as one of the Republicans’ favorite Democrats in the Senate for such a long time. He was willing to work with them, and the ways in which he was willing to work with them were very bad.
Laura: It’s funny, because the examples you’re giving of him walking across the aisle are of these particularly low points in his career now, of things that he would not like to have brought up. But when we talk about bipartisanship, we always hear it spoken about as a virtue. I’m just wondering how those two pieces fit together. It seems like, at least in Joe Biden’s career, bipartisanship has not produced results that in the long term you can be proud of.
What would be an example of bipartisanship at its best?
Julian Zelizer: Well, the example that’s often used is the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Laura: This is Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University.
Julian: So, this is a period where bipartisanship happens a lot, not just because of good feeling. In the 1960s, both political parties were internally divided in fundamental ways: Democrats divided between Southerners, the Dixiecrats who were against most civil rights legislation and against unions, and Northerners who were increasing in numbers and incredibly liberal on many of these issues. And Republicans were divided between the Midwesterners who were staunch anti-government figures, and Northeasterners like Jacob Javits or Nelson Rockefeller, who could be pretty progressive. So the Civil Rights Act of ’64—this is the legislation that bans legal segregation, and is really the first major product legislatively of the civil rights movement—Southerners filibustered, and they’re in the Senate, they’re trying to kill the legislation by talking it to death, and ultimately the only way it passes through the Senate is when some Republicans agree to work with the Johnson administration and liberals in the Democratic Party to end the filibuster. Senator Everett Dirksen, who’s the minority leader, a famous figure, ultimately is crucial to passage of the legislation. So I think that’s one bill and one moment we look to when the parties working together was pretty crucial.
Laura: At the time is that something that’s discussed as bipartisan? One thing we’re trying to trace is the increasing use of the term, and the use of this term not just to describe the practice of people from different parties working together but as an ideal in itself.
Julian: Well, it wasn’t an ideal, actually. The interesting thing about bipartisanship is that in the 1950s and ’60s, this phenomenon of parties working together was often discussed as a terrible thing in American politics. The reason is that, starting in 1938, you have a bipartisan coalition called the Conservative Coalition in Congress, and that was Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans who teamed up, they controlled most of the major committees, and they blocked everything. They blocked every major liberal piece of legislation, to the great frustration of movement activists and liberal politicians. So, starting in the early 1950s, there’s all this writing by political scientists essentially blasting bipartisanship, saying that because the parties work this way and because this coalition controls everything, we get nothing done. And this is a constant theme through the early ’70s. So many liberals in the ’50s and ’60s don’t see bipartisanship with great reverence. They see it as the problem, they’re calling for more partisanship in American politics, parties that stand for something and aren’t willing to cut deals with the other side that ended up killing major initiatives.
Alex: That’s funny, then, because I think they got what they want—the parties polarized, as I think most of our listeners are well aware. It feels to me like bipartisanship as an ideal in and of itself coincides with polarization.
Julian: They both happen at the same time.
Laura: Something I recall from Sam Rosenfeld’s book, The Polarizers, is that the critics of bipartisanship at the time thought that it was very confusing for the voter to vote Democrat or Republican because there wasn’t an ideologically coherent party, so it’s hard if you’re voting for a Democratic president and then you vote for your local representative, they may not agree, and you may be getting radically different things. So the idea that you can have what we now have, two fairly well-defined parties where you basically know what each one stands for, is good—the problem you then get is that they can’t work together because they’re very ideologically defined.
Julian: I think that’s correct. And what Sam writes about is this period in the ’70s where a lot of activism centered on strengthening the parties. There was a lot of attention to the rules and to the procedures: to strengthen the party leaders over the committee leaders, to strengthen the national party over local party machines. When John F. Kennedy is elected in 1960, there is a lot of excitement, a lot of younger Americans think lots is going to happen. And then the civil rights movement is really accelerating, and nothing happens, because Kennedy until 1963 is terrified of angering not the Republicans but his own wing of the party, he’s fearful of a backlash. And the reforms of the ’70s achieve, like you said, a lot of what was wished for, and there is a “careful what you wish for” story, meaning there is a story about, yes, we get more polarization, and the electorate also strengthens that; the Southern strategy, for example, produces a Southern region that is Republican rather than Democratic, also eroding the basis of bipartisanship. And you have two parties that are far apart. And the story of polarization is that when that really happens, it’s hard to find agreement on anything.
Osita Nwanevu: The term bipartisanship becomes more and more common as the parties get more and more divided.
Laura: Osita Nwanevu, a staff writer at The New Republic and a frequent guest on the show, has been looking into the early history of bipartisanship.
Osita: It tells you what the word is doing: It’s establishing a value that is only meaningful when it is difficult for the two parties to reach an agreement, right? If it’s the case that both parties are regularly coming to agreements, regularly passing policy together, you don’t need a term to describe that thing, it’s just the way politics is working. But when it becomes difficult for the two parties to come together, then you have the development of this value, where you say, “OK, we’re not here, and this is where we need to go,” right? You need to construct a different concept to describe the ideal situation. So the phenomenon of people in different political factions, different parties, coming together to do things or to solve problems—that’s not a new thing, obviously, that’s just politics. But in talking about bipartisanship, I mean this value system where you’re saying to yourself, “OK, one of the affirmative goals we have is bringing the two parties together”—that’s something we’re intentionally setting out to do, not something that’s going to be a natural consequence of interests aligning. We’re telling ourselves that good policies are policies in which the Democratic Party and Republican Party have come together deliberately to reach a kind of agreement, and, conversely, bad policies are policies that one side does on its own in a partisan way. That’s what I mean by bipartisanship as a value system, and that whole concept is not something that extends very far back beyond World War II.
Alex: So Osita explained that in its earliest usages, bipartisan was usually purely descriptive. It would refer to things like commissions that had members from both parties. It was only after the Second World War that it really came to mean Republicans and Democrats supporting the same policies, specifically in foreign policy.
Osita: And one of the people who really advocates for this idea is a guy named Arthur Vandenberg. He becomes the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by 1945 and delivers this speech in the Senate repudiating his former isolationism and saying that United States postwar foreign policy has to be this coming together. And in his letters and his commentary, you began seeing this word, “bipartisanship.” After World War II, you begin seeing people refer to a “bipartisan foreign policy,” meaning this concept that Republicans are going to come together and present a united front to establish the postwar order. And it’s not until really the 1960s or thereabouts where bipartisanship gets extended into domestic policy areas as a positive value. One of the first areas where you see this is civil rights—people are making the argument that the civil rights situation—and race relations—is a big enough crisis that we need to do exactly what we’re doing in foreign policy, we need to put partisan politics aside and reach the kind of unified agreement that’s going to move us forward on this issue. And then it proliferates through the decade. So by the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, it’s become established as a domestic policy value, as well—but it wasn’t originally one.
Alex: So we’ve talked about how the idea of bipartisanship developed during the middle part of the twentieth century.
Laura: After the break, we’ll be back to talk to Ed Burmila about the rhetorical high point of the concept, in the 1990s, and how the idea took over the Democratic Party.
Laura: Before the break, we were talking about where the term bipartisanship came from. We wanted to figure out what happened after it became established as a value, and the kinds of problems it’s created for the Democrats.
Alex: So we talked to Ed Burmila, who’s working on a book about the Democratic Party.
Laura: Bipartisan, I think, implies a kind of meeting in the middle and implies both sides come together and find an equal compromise between them. How does bipartisanship play out in real negotiations?
Ed Burmila: Well, the way I used to teach this stuff is to tell students to imagine we’re debating what to have for dinner. And if we both agree we’re going to have pizza, then fight over the toppings and eventually come to a compromise, that’s bipartisanship—we compromise. If one group of people wants pizza and the other group wants toxic waste, we’ll debate and meet in the middle on—what? What’s the middle of those two points? You can’t necessarily come to a bipartisan agreement or a meeting in the middle on a lot of things. So bipartisanship, in practice, often means one party in the deal is getting a lot more of what they want than the other, and the other one just yielded and agreed to it.
And this is what Bill Clinton brought to the table in the 1990s. The first two years of his presidency were not particularly successful. He had the failed attempt to reform health care and he had Nafta. Nafta was extremely unpopular with the Democratic base. So Democrats get wiped out in 1994 in the Republican Revolution midterms, and Bill Clinton brings in two Republican consultants, Dick Morris and Mark Penn, to start advising him heavily. Mark Penn was the guy who once, swear to God, ran a nationwide poll about where Bill Clinton should go on vacation, and then they planned the vacation based on the results of the poll. They came up with this triangulation strategy, and this is where bipartisanship really worked its way into the Democratic psyche. The idea was to take what the Republicans want—so the crime bill, welfare reform, deficit reduction—take what the Republicans want and use that as your premise. So say, “OK, we’re having pizza,” and then do the negotiation around the edges. Depict the Republicans as crazy, which was simple to do in the 1990s, just let Newt Gingrich talk for a while, and then Clinton could come in and be the adult and say, “Now you guys are going too far, why don’t you pull back a little bit?” Instead of asking, “Wait, do we need deficit reduction? Why is that our goal?” Clinton would simply say, “Instead of $400 million of deficit reduction, I talked him down to $300, it was a great deal, right?”
When you’re looking for a version of what the other party wants that you’ve made some peripheral changes to, you can’t really paint that as a victory. If you come out and say, “We got welfare reform, which is what the Republicans have been fighting for for 40 years, hurray”—in order to spin that as a victory, you have to put your own stamp on it somehow. And that’s when they started to emphasize the value of bipartisanship and the value of getting something done. You know, the air quotes “getting something done” became an end goal. “We got something done”—isn’t that the whole point? Well, no, it’s not.
Alex: How did it come to be that that Democrats continued holding onto this idea of dealmaking as a goal in and of itself?
Ed: Well, when the New Democrat movement became the dominant force in the party in the 1990s, my understanding of it is that they saw ideology as passé, as a function of an earlier political era, and: We are willing to be ideologically flexible in order to achieve these poorly defined, nebulous goals of “making America better.” And once you have punted on having a distinct ideology that you’re backing and telling voters, “This is what we want to do,” right, and not just saying, “We want America to be better, we want America to be stronger, we want everyone to have unity,” but a specific list of ideological goals, things that you want to do when you’re in office—when you don’t have that anymore, you have to try to sell competence. The example I keep coming back to, when I write about this, is Michael Dukakis in 1988 saying, “This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about who’s more competent.” It’s not. All politics is about ideology—elections, especially, are about ideology. You’re admitting that you see the world the same way they do, they’re fundamentally correct: “Ronald Reagan was basically right. We can’t beat him. So we’re just going to admit that his view of the future is what we’re going to get.”
Laura: So, obviously, they tried this in the Clinton era, but then the next time we hear a lot about bipartisanship is in the Obama years. Why did they go back to it? Why did this ideal get resurrected?
Ed: This is something that really makes me sad to go back and read about. If you want to have a terrible evening, watch Obama’s 2010 State of the Union speech, cue it up on YouTube. That’s when it became a thing.
Julian: No figure embodied the renewed promise of bipartisanship as [much as] Obama.
Laura: Here’s Julian Zelizer again.
Julian: The speech he made in 2004 was one of the most articulate defenses of the concept—“No red or blue America, United States of America.” And he still believed it, and they bit his hand off—every time he reached out, all they gave back was one or two votes and then a lot of partisan heat.
Ed: I saw an interview with Valerie Jarrett in 2019 talking about how her experience in the Obama White House proved to her that the next Democratic president’s main goal should be to work with the Republicans. It’s like, how did you get that conclusion from that? You were there for all of this. So there’s an interview with her in 2016 where she says, “Even knowing what we know, looking back on it, that the Republicans were not going to negotiate [in] good faith, and they were going to block everything we did anyway, we wouldn’t have done anything differently, because this is simply the right thing to do.” This is the way that smart people resolve a problem. They have a meeting, they bring everybody in and, you know, get ideas. Those are just baffling things for people to say, and we’re not talking about some random person on Twitter; we get this from people who were up close in front row seats in the Obama White House. “We wouldn’t have done it differently. This is just the right way to do things.” Even if it’s clear what the Republicans are going to do in response, they’re not going to play nice.
Laura: Do you think that’s an idea that is inherently incompatible with the nature of politics, or do you think that it’s the particular opponent that Democrats face in the Republican Party that makes it absurd?
Ed: You’ve hit the nail on the head there, in that what I think the problem is is the Democrats have been very, very slow to come around to the realization that the Republicans simply are not going to play nice with them. And we’re hearing it now from Biden. An interesting sort of parallel dialogue is to read Obama’s memoir, which I don’t recommend, that I’m, for work-related reasons, plowing through. And you know, he’s got an excuse for everything. “Everything we did was right. Here’s why I did it. Here’s the rationale.” And in real time, you see people who worked in the Obama White House and Joe Biden now saying, like, “Man, we have to not do that again.” They’re in real time now going through the experience again—you know, not surprisingly, as a lot of the Biden people now in the White House are Obama-era veterans. And they’re like, “We learned our lesson from last time, we can’t do this again.” But I want to see it before I start celebrating. One thing they’re good at is coming out strong and then using the next couple of weeks to slowly shuffle backward away from whatever it is they’re promising.
Laura: Do you think it’s had a longer-term effect on the thinking in the Democratic Party and their goals? Has it made them wary of achieving the stated aims? I’m being serious, because you see them negotiating against themselves before they actually get to the table on so many issues.
Ed: They’re great at that.
Laura: I think a lot of people think, “We voted for this politician because they said they were going to do this,” but then they’ve already started haggling themselves down before they get to the negotiating table.
Ed: The Democrats have so completely reoriented themselves away from economic populism and toward a base that is made up of highly educated, successful professionals that I don’t think the party feels any real urgency to get done what it promised it will get done—as opposed to passing some version of what they promised—because their base now, their donor base, is people who are pretty well off, overall, who have been successful generally in life. And whether this bill passes in form they promised or they negotiate it down to something else, those people’s lives aren’t really going to be different, one way or the other. The average person who was sending $1,000 a week checks to the Amy McGrath campaign is not hurting for money. They don’t care if it’s a $1,400 check or a $2,000 check or no check at all, right? They don’t care if Obamacare has a public option in it, because they get insurance from their employer or they can afford it or whatever.
So the lack of urgency from the base, and the willingness of the Democratic base to accept whatever they do and rationalize it as, “Actually, yeah, that was smart”—it creates an environment where there’s no real incentive for Democratic elected officials ever to dig in. Compared to the Republican elected officials who live in constant terror of their base primarying them if they’re not crazy enough, you have Democratic elected officials who generally have no fear of their base whatsoever. We’re all obligated to vote for them, according to them. It’s our moral obligation, because the Republicans are so bad, to come out and vote for the Democrats, no matter what they do. Where’s the pressure in that situation? What leverage can you apply to your elected officials, once you’ve accepted the premise that you’re morally obligated to vote for them no matter what?
Alex: Among observers of Congress, it’s sort of accepted now that Republicans are scared of their base and Democrats basically want to police their base. What I find interesting is that in the debate over the Covid relief checks that you alluded to, it seemed like in the absence of good-faith Republican negotiation, Democrats were beginning to get ready to negotiate among themselves to further means test them and reduce their generosity. I’m remembering one piece of reporting that said Warnock and Ossoff were on this conference call, basically, and were like, “You don’t understand. We ran on $2,000 checks, and we won, and that’s why we have the majority.” It felt like Democrats were getting ready to negotiate themselves down just out of habit. And these two senators were like, “No, we actually made a promise that people believe in. We should fulfill it.” Do you think I’m right about that being a change in their approach, and do you think that is a sign that things might change going forward?
Ed: Well, first of all, Alex, I always think you’re right, but more importantly—
Alex: I appreciate that from every guest.
Ed: More importantly, this is an amazing story for me to follow, I’m just loving this, because there’s no ambiguity there, nothing that needs to be explained—there’s no formula, no “calculator on my website.” It’s straightforward. And somehow, they’ve turned it into the fine print at the end of a local TV ad from a car dealer, “Up to $2,000 for qualifying buyers,” this kind of stuff—it sounds like fine print. But to your point, I don’t think that the kind of Democratic supporter who doesn’t have an urgent need for money right now, I don’t think that kind of person understands what a bad argument it is to say, “We couldn’t get all of the Democrats on board.” They point to, “Well, we can’t get rid of the filibuster, Manchin said no.” And I understand that reality, that they have people in the coalition who they can’t convince to do these basic things, but what you’re telling voters is, “We can’t defeat the other party because they’re stronger than us, and when we have a chance to, we can’t get all of our people on board to agree that we want to do these good things.” What are you telling voters? Imagine a world in which Mitch McConnell ever goes on camera and says, “We wanted to do that, but I’m sorry, guys, Chuck Schumer said no, he just won’t let us.” Or, “I’m sorry, we lost Mitt Romney. I didn’t even try to offer him anything or threaten him. He said no, I shrugged my shoulders and I walked away. Sorry, no tax cuts.” Mitch McConnell wouldn’t do that in a million years. He’d be tarred and feathered by his own electorate. And I think that when there’s a lack of urgency to get these outcomes, there is the problem where an explanation is good enough: “Well, we tried to do it—Sinema and Manchin said no,” exaggerated shrug, what could we do? And I don’t think that’s a great message to deliver to voters. I don’t think you want to say, “Well, if only some other things had happened, we could have won.”
Laura: So we’ve been talking about the history of the political system on the one hand, and it’s clear bipartisanship wasn’t really baked in from the beginning, and it doesn’t entirely make sense in a system where politics is about contest, and it’s about trying to fight for what you want, trying to win. But I think if you talk to most people about the idea of bipartisanship, the idea of getting together with people who disagree with you and trying to find some kind of compromise, that just seems like the right thing to do, that just seems like the decent thing to do to most people. And I think that might be why it appeals to so many people. On the one hand, you have this kind of personal code of conduct, the way that we expect other people, reasonable people, to act in real life. But then, on the other hand, you have the principles behind politics. So maybe there’s a confusion there between personal and political behavior.
Alex: We asked Osita what he thought.
Osita: I think there’s also some complication there, because I think that you see very clear differences between the Republican and Democratic electorate on this question. So I was looking at polling around impeachment just the other day. I think it was a CBS poll where they said the majority of Democrats see Republicans as ordinary political opponents. And you have a minority in the Democratic Party that sees Republicans as enemies—I think it’s 50-something to 40-something. In the Republican Party that’s exactly reversed—a 50-something majority of Republicans say that they view Democrats as political enemies, and a minority sees them as ordinary political opponents. So there’s this dispositional difference—Republicans are not fretting about this question. We’ve reached a point, obviously, where they don’t see the Democratic electorate as legitimate, and they are willing to countenance the overturning of our election results and all that.
But I do think for the majority of people, you’re right that compromise feels intuitively correct. And I think that the challenge for progressives is to say to people, the Democratic coalition is in itself a coalition of different kinds of people who don’t always agree on things, but they still constitute the majority of the public. That majority is a majority that’s been reached through discussion and debate and deliberation, and it’s not illegitimate just because you don’t have Republicans also on board with the things majority wants. It doesn’t mean that you should see yourselves as thoughtless partisans just because you want health care and climate action and gun policy. All of those things are things a majority of the American people want, and they want it because people have thought very carefully and had a lot of intensive, good-faith discussions about these things.
Laura: The idea of bipartisanship almost misrepresents the two parties as being monoliths, where there’s complete agreement, and limits the idea of compromise to purely a compromise between those two parties, not compromise within the parties.
Alex: If you want to talk about unity, it should be considered an achievement to get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Manchin to vote on the same thing, right?
Laura: We need a word for that.