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The Case for Partisanship

Bipartisanship might not be dead. But it is on life support. And it’s long past time we pulled the plug.

Against all odds and after weeks of work, they finally got it done—a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill. “This bill is not perfect, but it is a commonsense compromise, and an important first step in the right direction,” the president said upon passage in the Senate. With palpable relief, the transportation secretary said in a statement that the bill reflected “a bipartisan compromise I always knew was possible.” The Washington Post called it a “landmark moment for a Congress that is reviled by many Americans as a do-nothing body, most notable for the bitter fighting between its most extreme elements.” And those who’d seen such fighting as evidence that cooperation and compromise were beyond partisans on the Hill had clearly been mistaken. “We proved them wrong,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, “and we proved it could actually pass by a wide, bipartisan margin.”

It’s a testament to the longevity of both McConnell’s career and infrastructure as a political issue that the bill described above isn’t President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, but another bipartisan infrastructure bill entirely: the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, passed under Barack Obama in 2015. FAST wasn’t nearly as large or far-reaching as Biden’s Framework, but it was a meaningful accomplishment and was treated as such, at least for a moment. At a cost of $305 billion over five years, it was the first long-term funding package for transportation in a decade, and it contained modest increases in highway and transit funding for states. In a joint statement, Senators James Inhofe and Barbara Boxer, the chair and ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called FAST’s passage “historic.” While that seems like wild hyperbole now, the hype is more understandable when considered in light of what was being passed at that stage of Obama’s presidency, which is to say not much at all. There were other significant bipartisan bills, like the Every Student Succeeds Act and a reform to the way Medicare pays doctors. But both parties would remain too far apart for major legislation on immigration, gun control, and the other issues that were driving political discourse at the time.

Those divisions and Republican intransigence motivated Obama’s turn toward executive action—unilateral policymaking that defines the waning days of his administration in our political memory so much that the Senate’s passage of another bipartisan infrastructure bill, this August, was greeted as a strange development without recent precedent. In late July, the headline of one Politico article said with surprise that “BIDEN’S OBSESSION WITH SCORING A BIPARTISAN DEAL SUDDENLY LOOKS QUITE DOABLE.”

“Though most Democrats were hesitant to declare victory,” reported another piece in Politico, “they said that a bipartisan compromise would help Biden ink future ones with Republicans.”

As the full legislative history of the last Democratic administration demonstrated, and as this Democratic administration knew full well, the deal represented no such possibility. To begin with, the Framework’s fate was tethered from the outset to the fate of another bill—a multitrillion-dollar reconciliation package crammed with Democratic policy priorities that the administration hoped to pass by partisan simple majorities. And like the reconciliation-passed American Rescue Plan before it, this second bill was a more honest reflection of realities on the Hill than of the administration’s statements—Republicans simply weren’t going to be forthcoming on most of the administration’s agenda. But in 2020, Biden and most Democrats ran on a solemn promise to the American people—return the party to power, and U.S. political divides would be substantially healed. Republicans, Biden promised, would move Democrats’ way not only on minimally divisive issues like infrastructure, but also, after a post-Trump “epiphany,” on much of his major policy agenda. That hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen. But to keep the promise plausible, Democrats made a choice. A larger, more partisan infrastructure bill might have secured larger, more substantial investments, especially in critical areas like climate and public transit. But for Biden and Democratic Senate moderates committed to constraining the size and scope of the party’s legislation, reviving faith in the possibility of bipartisanship was a more valuable achievement. “From the time I announced my candidacy, bringing the country together and doing things in a bipartisan way—it was characterized as a relic of an earlier age,” Biden said in remarks after the Framework passed the Senate. “As you may well remember, I never believed that. I still don’t.”

Is bipartisanship a relic? Really, the question is more complicated than Biden and most of his critics seem to appreciate. While members of opposing parties have come together to work on shared interests and broker compromises for as long as political parties have existed, the concept of bipartisanship, where collaboration and compromise between the two major parties are actively sought and hailed as virtues in themselves, is a fairly recent innovation in American politics—an idea initially developed to prevent domestic political debates from inhibiting the expansion of U.S. power and influence abroad. From those origins, it’s evolved into a political shibboleth—one that denies partisanship’s capacity to deliver results for the American people and that, far from uniting the country, is plainly catalyzing the collapse of its political institutions. And those institutions won’t be rebuilt until we leave behind the notion that there’s intrinsic good in consensus and compromise. Bipartisanship might not be dead. But it is on life support. And it’s long past time we pulled the plug.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn how recently our positivity about bipartisanship came to be. Ahead of the 1960 presidential election, for instance, some political analysts anxiously warned the public against a repeat of the divided government Washington had seen for the majority of Eisenhower’s term. In January of that year, the subhead of a New York Times article by the journalist Douglass Cater said that the split in partisan control of the White House and Congress had “given ‘bipartisanship’ a new—and disturbing—twist.”

“Protracted bipartisanship leads to a minimal kind of politics with everything played in low key,” Cater argued. “It reduces the incentive for bold, new initiatives on the part of the Administration in power.” Cater even suggested that bipartisanship might undermine American foreign policy by producing a broad but muddy consensus on national priorities. “It may be questioned whether … ‘bipartisanship’ presents a proper image abroad,” he mused. “What our allies and enemies both may have occasion to wonder is who speaks for America in an effective way.”

This was far from a fringe perspective. Upon Kennedy’s election, the historian Henry Graff echoed Cater in another piece for the Times: “In domestic matters, bipartisanship is, naturally, impossible and undesirable. Although some legislation will, as heretofore, enjoy bipartisan support, our politics remain by nature partisan.” And a full eight years later, the Times ran an editorial making the same argument. “Except in time of war ... history suggests that self-conscious bipartisanship does not work very well in this country,” the editors wrote. “A peacetime coalition could only serve to blur the lines of responsibility to no real purpose.” Of all the sea changes that have occurred over the last half-century in American politics, the shift from a political mainstream skeptical or ambivalent about bipartisanship to a mainstream that celebrates it is among the most under-examined. The creation of our current paradigm is a very long story—one that seems to begin, as a great many things did last century, with World War I.

As the conflict was drawing to a close in November 1918, Republicans took control of Congress in a midterm sweep, thanks in part to their attacks on Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s administration of the war effort and the plans for a postwar peace he outlined in his Fourteen Points speech. Unsurprisingly, most Republicans in the chamber came to oppose the Treaty of Versailles in its original form, which included the Wilson-backed League of Nations. Henry Cabot Lodge, the de facto Senate majority leader and a personal enemy of Wilson’s, did draft a list of amendments to the articles of the treaty that the party found most objectionable, but Wilson rejected Lodge’s compromises and traveled the country hoping to rally the public to his side. In March 1920, after another repudiation of amendments, the Senate rejected the treaty a final time. The United States never ratified it and never joined the League of Nations.

It was an outcome shaped largely by personal animosity, the ideological diversity within each of the parties at the time, and white ethnic divisions that had influenced the politics of the war from its outset. But in the decades afterward, the treaty’s rejection was flattened by politicians and analysts into a simple object lesson—at a critical moment for the country and the world, American foreign policy had been hobbled by partisanship. And as World War II—a conflict partially caused by the unfinished business of the last war—broke out, President Franklin Roosevelt and other leaders in Washington urged Americans to leave petty politics behind. “These perilous days demand cooperation between us without trace of partisanship,” Roosevelt declared in a September 1939 speech to Congress. “Our acts must be guided by one single hardheaded thought—keeping America out of this war.”

The United States, of course, would not be kept out of the war. And as it ended, American diplomats and foreign policy minds, keen on avoiding Wilson’s mistakes, set about reshaping the world order. In August 1944, just a few months before that year’s election, sitting Democratic Secretary of State Cordell Hull and John Foster Dulles, then foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, met to reach, in Dewey’s words, a “wholly bipartisan” agreement on a peace plan. In September, Dulles announced to the press that, in agreeing to the structure of what would become the United Nations, the two parties had “done something which is perhaps unique in American politics.” In a 1945 speech to Congress concerning the Yalta Conference and the upcoming San Francisco Conference on the United Nations, FDR struck the same note, using the same word Dewey had. “The American Delegation is—in every sense of the word—bipartisan,” he said. “I think that Republicans want peace just as much as Democrats.”

These were far from the first uses of the word “bipartisan.” Merriam-Webster traces it back to 1891, and its original definition is spare and straightforward: “of, relating to, or involving members of two parties.” Between the first record of the word “bipartisan” in the archives of the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara—ironically in a 1916 Wilson speech dealing with a tariff commission—and FDR’s speech in 1945, this was the dispassionate sense in which the term was mostly used: to describe, for instance, the composition of bodies appointed to deliver unbiased information or make decisions on a technocratic basis. In a representative 1932 speech, FDR explained that Wilson’s “bipartisan tariff commission” had been “charged with the duty of supplying the Congress with accurate and full information upon which to base tariff rates.”

But after a political transformation, “bipartisan” came to connote, beyond simple impartiality and fairness, the national unity that internationalists believed the country needed to maintain its nascent dominance on the world’s stage. The new spin on the word was reflected not only by Dewey and Roosevelt, but in a 1947 letter exchange between Eleanor Roosevelt and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Arthur Vandenberg on American representation at the United Nations and the Council of Foreign Ministers. “Whatever our representation is in these international contacts, I cordially and emphatically agree with you that it should be ‘bi-partisan,’” Vandenberg wrote. “I think this theory has paid infinite dividends in the last two years. I think it is one of the major reasons why your distinguished husband succeeded in his peace prospectus where the late President Wilson failed. So long as we can keep partisan politics out of foreign affairs, it is entirely obvious that we shall speak with infinitely greater authority abroad.”

Then as now, the emerging rhetoric of bipartisanship obscured political realities. In 1946, Republicans took Congress, forcing the Truman administration to seek support for its foreign policy agenda on the other side of the aisle. And some Republicans were more amenable to that agenda than others. As the historian Henry Berger wrote in a 1975 paper, bipartisanship for Truman meant the other party’s acquiescence and public agreement, and the administration “sought to guarantee these results by choosing as collaborators Republicans whose previous positions had demonstrated adherence to its ideas.” In other words, only certain Republicans could provide what was needed: “As one Republican critic observed, bipartisanship meant ‘Republicans and Democrats of like mind sitting down together.’”

The doctrine also came under fire from ideologues in the growing conservative movement like the writer Willmoore Kendall, who wrote that the “majority-rule democrat” recognizes bipartisanship as an “attempt on the part of its proponents to put into attractive language, and so reinforce, the most undemocratic features of our political system, namely, those that prevent it from producing real popular decisions on real issues.” “The majority-rule democrat,” he continued, “sees that the years of self-conscious bipartisanship, these years during which we have all been ‘for’ bipartisanship … have been years during which there has been less presumption than ever of any coincidence between current United States foreign policy and the will of the majority of the American electorate.”

Naturally, bipartisanship also drew critics on the left, including figures like former Vice President and Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who more specifically condemned the concept as the means by which both parties might sustain hostility toward the Soviet Union and turn the Cold War hot. “Both have said that ‘partisan politics must stop at the water’s edge,’” he stated, quoting Vandenberg, in a 1948 speech. “They have declared their agreement. It is an agreement which would doom the Nation and the world.” Against bromides like this, Truman and his allies implied that disunity on foreign policy and criticisms of bipartisanship were potentially destabilizing. “We are all anxious for peace, and we will get peace in the world, if the people of the United States back up their bipartisan foreign policy,” he told an audience in Kansas that year. “That is the most important thing that we have facing us now. All these domestic issues can be fought out on the basis of their merits. The foreign policy of the United States must be the policy of the whole United States, in order to make it effective.”

As Truman’s speech suggests, it wasn’t obvious even to bipartisanship’s advocates in the foreign policy sphere that the concept would suit domestic policy debates. But some figures embraced the possibility almost immediately. In a 1947 article titled “BIPARTISANSHIP SPREADS ON HILL,” The Washington Post reported a strange suggestion made by former Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon. “An earnest recommendation to the Republican Party was made … that the Republican-controlled Congress cooperate with the Democratic President in bipartisan action to deal with high prices...,” the Post’s Mark Sullivan wrote. “The idea is that bipartisanship has been achieved in foreign relations, that our domestic problems are as serious as the foreign ones and that in the domestic field the same bipartisanship should be aimed at.” As the article notes, the phenomenon of interparty collaboration obviously wasn’t new—in fact, it was quite common, given the diversity of interests and ideologies within each party before they became the ideologically cohesive and polarized entities they are today. “Without being formally aimed at, bipartisanship informally exists as respects the two parties in Congress,” Sullivan wrote. “Without having made agreement about it, without indeed being much conscious of it, the two parties practice it.”

But what was novel about Landon’s suggestion was precisely that it urged the conscious adoption of bipartisanship as a normative value in domestic politics. It was an expression of hope that the routines of ordinary politics might be transcended—as they had supposedly been in foreign affairs, to solve large domestic problems with comity and a grand sense of shared purpose.

Ironically, that hope would be fulfilled with the rise of the issue that would deepen and clarify divisions between the two parties: civil rights. In a 1963 editorial, The Washington Post, Times Herald praised recent “gestures on Capitol Hill toward bipartisan cooperation” in advancing civil rights bills. “This responsible action on both sides reflects wide recognition of the grave proportions that the racial conflict has assumed,” the paper wrote. “Senator [Hubert] Humphrey said that the situation calls for ‘the same kind of bipartisanship we have on foreign affairs.’” While the two then heterogenous parties had long proved capable of cooperation on other issues, here productive negotiation and collaboration would have to be induced somehow. And while it was direct activism and rhetorical appeals to racial equality that ultimately unstuck the gears in Washington, politicians and the press also tried rhetorical appeals to bipartisanship, now understood as a good in itself. “The parties have a tradition of putting aside politics-as-usual and rallying to truly national interests in time of crisis,” the editorial continued. “We think it would be appropriate for them to do so now in the face of a rising tide of disturbances that are intimately related to the paucity of congressional action in this field in the past.” A week later, an editorial in The New York Times sounded the same note: “Just as bipartisanship has characterized the Congressional response to international crises, so it must bring unity in this great domestic crisis.”

Unity wasn’t forthcoming, but the Civil Rights Acts did ultimately pass with support from both parties. The last two of that era were passed during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, who as Senate majority leader had demonstrated a mastery of transactional and anti-ideological politics. Although Democrats held significant majorities in both houses of Congress through Johnson’s entire term, the other major initiatives of the Great Society would also draw substantial amounts of Republican support. Johnson never missed an opportunity to frame legislative successes he might have spun as partisan victories—from the Higher Education Act of 1965 to the Private Ownership of Special Nuclear Materials Act—as the successes of bipartisanship. And his enthusiasm for bipartisan rhetoric helped embed the concept within ordinary domestic politics. “Transportation,” he said at the groundbreaking for San Francisco’s BART test track, “is a bipartisan problem.” Strong dollar policy, he assured a gathering of businessmen at the White House in 1964, enjoyed “across-the-board bipartisan support.” The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, he told the National Recreation and Park Association in 1966, would be “a bipartisan park.”

While both parties were routinely taking bipartisan votes in Congress by the end of the decade, the collapse of the Democrats’ New Deal coalition over civil rights and other social issues and the intraparty battles waged by polarizing activists gradually scrambled partisan politics for good. Both Nixon and Ford presided over Democratic congresses. Carter’s presidency frustrated party progressives and offered an early vision of the centrist politics Democrats would gradually cotton to over the decade ahead, as they attempted to wrest disaffected whites back from the Republican Party. While Republicans rode the conservative movement’s ascendancy to control of the White House and the Senate in 1981, Democrats controlled Congress from 1987 to 1995. The two parties were growing more ideologically and demographically sorted. From the end of the 1960s onward, divided government, once a rarity, would become much more common. And the concept of bipartisanship would be inflated by the paradox both realities created. On the one hand, the decline of one-party government made reaching bipartisan agreement more critical for policymakers in Washington. But on the other, the polarization of the two parties made reaching agreement increasingly difficult—a problem that deepened both the salience of bipartisanship as an aspiration and the perceived significance of bipartisan agreements once reached. As bipartisanship became less and less possible, the calls for bipartisanship—and the praise for bipartisan accomplishments, however rare—grew louder and louder.

This dynamic came to define the Clinton administration and a policy legacy cemented early on with the ratification of NAFTA and the 1994 crime bill. Of the latter, the journalist David Broder said, “For the first time, the Clinton administration did its domestic policymaking on a genuinely bipartisan basis.” Thanks in part to the Republican sweep of Congress in that year’s midterms, there was more such policymaking to come. In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton noted “broad bipartisan agreement that permanent deficit spending must come to an end” and urged Congress to send him “a bipartisan welfare reform bill that will really move people from welfare to work and do the right thing by our children.” The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the fulfillment of longstanding promises made by both Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s Republicans to shrink and remake the welfare system, passed with bipartisan support that summer.

But despite those and other successes in governing from the center, polarization had a demonstrable impact on the Clinton agenda. The first year of the administration was dominated by party-line votes and a sharply divisive ideological battle over health care. And according to a 2005 analysis by political scientists Peter Trubowitz and Nicole Mellow, only 33 percent of votes in the first Congress after the Republican victories in the 1994 midterms drew either majority support from both parties or enough bipartisan support that there was no more than a 20 percent difference in the proportion of supporters within each party—the lowest recorded level of legislative bipartisanship since World War II. Even the crime bill had actually passed on a largely partisan basis—while it reflected GOP concerns and bore GOP revisions, most Republicans in Congress opposed the bill, with many citing its cost and the inclusion of the assault weapons ban as sticking points.

For a moment early in the George W. Bush administration, it seemed as though substantive bipartisanship would make a more thorough comeback. Bush had famously campaigned on the promise that he’d be a “uniter, not a divider” in office and came to the White House as the face of “compassionate conservatism,” a short-lived center-right consensus that yielded bipartisan policies like No Child Left Behind and the expansion of Medicare. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 58 percent majority of the votes taken by the end of the 107th Congress, in session during and after 9/11, was bipartisan. And a 2007 study of presidential rhetoric found that Bush made bipartisan appeals five times more frequently than partisan appeals in his public statements. But Bush’s term also saw the aggressive deployment of partisan legislative tactics, including the Hastert Rule, which informally prohibited House votes on legislation not supported by a majority of the majority (at the time Republican). And his successful reelection campaign attempted to rally the Republican base with divisive messaging on gay marriage, the terrorist threat, and patriotism.

By the time Barack Obama took the stage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention to deny the existence of liberal and conservative Americas, both Americas had already solidified into self-evident realities. And the confluence of factors that tanked support for Bush and the Republican Party over the course of his second term—including the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis—only accelerated the polarization of the electorate and deepened divisions in Congress. So, too, did the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy. Undaunted by the racial dog whistles and open hostility from the right that greeted his run, Obama, like Bush, promised a unifying presidency. Unlike Bush, he spared no effort to keep that promise and built a legislative strategy upon the hope that bipartisan support for his agenda would grow over time. In 2010, The Washington Post described this as the “advancing tide” theory. “Democrats would start with bills that targeted relatively narrow problems, such as expanding health care for low-income children, reforming Pentagon contracting practices, and curbing abuses by credit card companies,” the political scientist George Edwards explained in a 2012 paper. “Republicans would see the victories stack up and would want to take credit alongside a popular president. As momentum built, larger bipartisan coalitions would form to tackle more ambitious initiatives.”

The administration did manage to nail the first portion of the plan. In a 2012 assessment of Obama’s first term, Bowdoin’s Andrew Rudalevige noted that the president had prevailed in more than 90 percent of the roll call votes taken in Congress between 2009 and 2010, giving him the highest legislative success rate for any president ever recorded by Congressional Quarterly. And some of the bills passed early on did garner bipartisan support, including the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Cash for Clunkers, and bills on food safety and tobacco regulation. But on the central policy actions of his first term, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, Obama was confronted with near-uniform opposition from a party that had publicly committed itself to his overall failure at the outset—a party that would be pulled even further right over the course of his presidency by an internal insurgency and a demagogic and conspiratorial conservative media infrastructure. Democratic losses in Congress in 2010 and 2014 hobbled the administration’s legislative agenda and forced a turn toward executive action—but not before a set of manufactured congressional crises over the national debt fueled a bipartisan austerity push that Obama’s Democratic successor would, without acknowledging it directly, functionally repudiate.

As the Senate’s passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework demonstrates, Democrats and Republicans still come together to pass significant bills in each Congress. Some commentators have taken to calling more low-profile bipartisan legislation the products of a “Secret Congress,” as though they’re actively hidden from the public. But a lot of bipartisan work in Congress is no secret at all—our last president, Donald Trump, actually signed several fairly high-profile bipartisan bills into law, including the First Step Act, the first major criminal justice reform bill passed in nearly a decade, and the CARES Act, then the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history, which contained an unprecedented expansion of unemployment insurance and unconditional cash payments to American families—both of which Biden and Democrats built upon and expanded in the American Rescue Plan.

It is true that Trump pursued much of his agenda along partisan lines—2017’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the other major legislative accomplishment of his presidency, was passed through budget reconciliation, which allows certain fiscally relevant measures to pass by simple majorities. But so has Joe Biden. The American Rescue Plan was enacted in the very same way, and a laundry list of Democratic policy priorities—from paid family leave and an expansion of Medicare to climate policy and perhaps even immigration reform—is planned for a second reconciliation push. Both Trump and Biden took advantage of an ever-narrowing window for bipartisan policymaking; both made use of a legislative process that allows for the unilateral passage of more contentious policies. Only one, though, is being feted for having proved something that was never really in doubt—that Congress members can still work together from time to time.

Why? The question answers itself. Donald Trump was a demagogue, an idiot, and a boor who spent most of his time launching wild attacks on political opponents inside and outside his party and ended his presidency with an attempted coup. Biden is a traditional politician who actively talks up bipartisanship and has promised to both re-dignify Washington and bring the country together. He seems, outwardly, to embody the qualities—moderation, sobriety, patience—that bipartisanship has come to signify in the public mind. The fact that both substantively have major bipartisan accomplishments to their names matters not a whit. Bipartisanship is, ultimately, just a vibe.

In late July, just before the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework passed the Senate, Axios released a memo from Biden adviser Mike Donilon, where he shared his optimism about how a bipartisan deal would be received by voters. “While a lot of pundits have doubted bipartisanship was even possible,” he said, “the American people have been very clear it is what they want.” He was part right and part wrong. Biden’s very ascension to the presidency and a number of surveys do suggest that the electorate values bipartisanship a great deal. In a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, for instance, 65 percent of Americans reported that it was very important for elected officials to compromise with their political opponents. But it’s a far more complicated matter than figures like that suggest. For one thing, partisan power matters. Pew also found that 79 percent of Democrats said it was very important for Republican officials to compromise with Democrats (just 41 percent of Republicans agreed), while 78 percent of Republicans said it was important for Democratic officials to compromise with Republicans (just 48 percent of Democrats agreed). There are also clear and consistent partisan differences on the extent to which voters are willing to tolerate divisive political behavior. Seventy percent of Democratic partisans and leaners said it was never acceptable for elected officials to call their opponents stupid, while only 51 percent of Republicans said the same. Fifty-three percent of Democrats said it was never acceptable to call opponents “anti-American”; only 25 percent of Republicans said the same. And 42 percent of Democrats said it was never acceptable to call an opponent’s policy positions “evil”—a minority this time, but, here again, a larger proportion than the 26 percent of Republicans who said the same. Those numbers aren’t too surprising, given all we’ve seen and experienced of the two parties over the last quarter-century: We have a Democratic Party that consistently elevates figures who promote political civility, and a Republican Party that, thanks to a confluence of sociopolitical anxieties and a vast and politically extreme media infrastructure, left civility and political norms behind thoroughly enough that it put Donald Trump in the White House and, through two impeachment hearings, kept him there.

For more novel insights as to how bipartisanship operates in our political consciousness, we have to turn to academia and a series of recent papers that underscore how slippery the concept can be both on the Hill and in the minds of voters. One, published this year by Dartmouth political scientist Sean Westwood, found no relationship between the volume of bipartisan rhetoric and the extent of actual bipartisan action in Congress—in fact, Westwood says, most bipartisan rhetoric is deployed in support of legislation with “trivial minority support.” And even trivial minority support can have an extraordinary impact on the public’s perception of legislation.

In another paper from 2017, based on a national YouGov survey, Loyola University Maryland’s Celia Paris found that, while bipartisan cooperation really can improve most voters’ opinions of both individual legislators and Congress as a whole, this doesn’t appear to be true for independents, who seem indifferent to bipartisan cooperation. “This finding contrasts starkly with the popular portrayal of independents as committed moderates,” she writes, “but is perhaps less surprising in light of research that shows that pure independents tend to be the least knowledgeable, interested, and engaged of any group of voters, are most likely to express neutrality between the two parties, and tend to have few or no opinions on either party.”

And perhaps most critically of all, researchers have confirmed that those professions of support for bipartisanship, as Pew’s numbers suggest, actually disguise the public’s partisan preferences—voters don’t actually prefer bipartisan outcomes to partisan victories for their side, although they do prefer them to total gridlock. “People do not simply have preferences for congressional parties to engage in bipartisanship or partisanship,” D.J. Flynn and Laurel Harbridge wrote in a 2016 paper. “Their preferences are heavily dependent on the outcome of partisan conflict and the type of issue at hand.”

You wouldn’t know this by taking all that’s said and done in our day-to-day politics at face value. Despite and, again, because of our deepening political divides, leaders and voters in both parties, and the Democratic Party in particular, continue to make rhetorical appeals to bipartisanship as though it’s a fully coherent and foundational political value—one that, given the initial reluctance of Democratic leaders to impeach Donald Trump without Republican support and the dubious defenses of the filibuster as a facilitator of bipartisan compromise, has come to sit a few rungs above the rule of law and majority rule. What could possibly justify that position? While it’s produced decent legislation here and there, bipartisanship has also yielded many of the most destructive policies of the last quarter-century, including welfare reform, the deregulation of Wall Street, and, in another demonstration of bipartisanship’s power to foreclose foreign policy debate, the war on terrorism. Many of the bills the Democratic advocates of bipartisanship take the most pride in—from major legislation of the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act—were products of the party’s partisan dominance. We’ve come to a point where the protection of the right to vote and the reform of our federal political system are also partisan projects. And it cannot seriously be denied that the concept of bipartisanship—insofar as it is deployed as a case against unilateral Democratic action—has become a threat to the democratic process. If Democrats fail to check Republican voter suppression and the risk that the right subverts the next election, it will be because the pivotal voters in the caucus and the president upheld a doctrine that presupposes an equivalence between the two parties and holds that Republican abuses cannot be curbed without permission from Republicans.

Last September, The Hill ran a piece quoting a few of that doctrine’s key advocates. “Financial services and oil and gas groups are among those who are worried that progressive policies might be inevitable and bipartisanship on pro-business legislation will be a thing of the past,” reporter Alex Gangitano wrote. Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, told the paper that Democrats would be well-advised to keep the filibuster if they took the Senate, as the 60-vote threshold for passing legislation had historically protected “the idea that consensus is needed to move large pieces of legislation.” Neil Bradley, executive vice president at the Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying that the filibuster’s elimination would prevent “policy getting forged with bipartisan consensus.” The single-party enactment of legislation, he said, “means there’s less consensus, less opportunity for input, and ultimately it results in much worse policy.”

“Worse for whom?” we might ask. While most of the country would obviously benefit from democratic reforms that make our federal political system more egalitarian and major legislation on critical issues such as climate change, the likes of the American Petroleum Institute would obviously lose out if the Democratic Party fully jettisoned the filibuster and bipartisanship to get things done by making partisan progress on these and other fronts. The fact that sticking with bipartisanship might bring us to a democratic collapse hardly concerns them—what would such a collapse be, after all, but the culmination of decades’ worth of effort to constrain the federal government’s capacity to act in the interests of ordinary working Americans? And this is perhaps the final irony of where bipartisanship has taken us—conceived as an inducement to moderation and a way to keep both ends of the political spectrum in check, it sits on the cusp of delivering a final victory to the ideologues of the right and their financial backers. Early this year, many of those backers made a grand show of repudiating Trump’s attacks on the election process and the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Repudiating bipartisanship—which secures a place in governance for the party that brought about Trump and January 6—remains out of the question. It has earned them too much.

And while many Democrats under Biden have demonstrated an understanding that the party will need to go it alone on most of its agenda, a rhetorical break from bipartisanship isn’t in the offing on their part either. Voices on the left are often criticized for suggesting that the two parties are more similar than they outwardly seem. But even those who doubt this cannot reasonably deny that Democratic leaders spend much of their time arguing openly that both parties need each other and that the American people need them to need each other. The party needs more critics who insist that this isn’t an accident or a mistake—that while bipartisanship may well produce more dire consequences than Democratic leaders have anticipated, it has, for a very long time, succeeded in sidelining deep partisans who might have complicated the party’s efforts to appear more moderate to the electorate and the party’s relationships with business interests. Increasingly, voters—on the left and on the right—are demanding more than bipartisanship is capable of giving them. The right has already made a significant break with the idea. It remains to be seen whether Democratic voters will follow suit and demand—in protests and at the ballot box—that their leaders join them. For the country’s sake, we should hope they do. We might not be able to bridge the country’s divides. But we can craft and implement policy that the country needs, and should take our ever-diminishing opportunities to do so whenever we can, whether or not an opposition party moving toward an open rejection of democracy comes to the table.