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Bridges to Nowhere

I suppose I don’t have anything against bipartisanship per se. Nor do I consider it a positive good in and of itself. It’s a helpful tool sometimes and a harmful one at others, mostly depending on who’s wielding it, like the Bible or Wikipedia. What I can’t understand or abide is the cult of Bipartisanship Uber Alles, and the notion of compromise as an end rather than a means, which is as empty as Evan Bayh’s suit.

The latest exercise in empty symbolism is a proposal that members of Congress should sit in one unified mass during the upcoming State of the Union address, rather than following the usual practice of Democrats on one side of the aisle and Republicans on the other. You can practically hear David Brooks’s heart fluttering like a 12-year old girl who’s just been given a pony wearing a Justin Bieber backstage pass around its neck.

So this is what the world looks like through beige-colored glasses. Guys, there’s still time to organize a pre-address singing of “Row Row Row Your Boat” in 535-part rounds. Okay, now just the junior senators!

I must say, it’s comforting to think of politics as a sport, where two sides are divided only by the uniforms they wear and the outcomes of their conflicts have no tangible consequences. The Democrats passed health care reform – yay, ten points for the Blue Team! The Republicans won back the House – woooo, five points for the Red Squadron! And it’s a barnburner at halftime, with the score at Who-Gives-A-Fuck to Seriously-We’re-All-Just-Jerking-Off-Here. Laws that get passed or repealed are just trophies, not public policies that dramatically shape the social and economic lives of citizens.

But elections aren’t games, and political parties aren’t arbitrary squads of ideological monoliths in different colored jerseys. Contrary to the hoary cynical trope, there actually IS a difference between what Democrats and Republicans believe. Vastly different philosophies animate each side – about the roles of the state and the market, about the balance between individual freedoms and collective responsibilities, about how to prioritize the competing ideas of the good enshrined in the Constitution, etc. Elections are not merely about the getting and keeping of power; they are (or should be) how society adjudicates these conflicts.

The bipartisanship partisans like to regard themselves as aspiring to a higher ideal, but they’re peddling cynicism by happier, shinier name. Their entire ideology rests on the idea that all conflicts can be settled by setting aside party labels and deferring to common sense, as though parties don’t form precisely because reasonable people can have conflicting – often mutually exclusive – ideas of what constitutes “common sense” when tackling the collective problems of a 310-million-strong body politic.

The emptiness of their entire posture is evident in their all-time favorite rhetorical nugget: “building bridges” to the other side. It’s a nice, easy metaphor, and also one of the stupidest ones in the lexicon. It’s trotted out to admonish us to come together in the middle, totally oblivious to the fact that actual bridges are built TO GET FROM ONE SIDE TO ANOTHER. Who sets a goal of charging halfway across a bridge and settling down in the middle? Not much can be accomplished from the middle of a bridge, except perhaps suicide.

So in lieu of having honest, fact-based debates on the merits of gun control, or health care repeal’s impact on the deficit, let Congress sit together in a jumbled political paella at the SOTU. Let everyone notice that, hey, instead of two divided crowds of almost-entirely-old-white-guys, there’s ONE BIG crowd of almost-entirely-old-white-guys, but hey, I think that one old-white-guy might be Chuck Schumer sitting next to old-white-guy Tom Coburn, which I recognize and am inspired by, because like all Americans I can identify all 535 members of Congress on sight. Now that they’ve occupied adjacent seats for an hour and fifteen minutes, surely Coburn will embrace the public option and Schumer will push for Oklahoma-style abortion restrictions in New York City.

For one bright, shining moment, everyone in the Capitol will forget whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican, because those are just labels, and they’ll realize that their most deeply held and long-considered beliefs about how to deliver value to their constituents are mere trifles when compared to the uncomplicated bliss of playing nice together. In the words of noted political theorist Jiminy Cricket, good government is a wish your heart makes.

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