One of the most common complaints heard amongst establishment politicians—as well as the members of the establishment media who lick their loafers—is that we live in an age of unprecedented partisanship. It is this partisan gridlock, according to them, that is to blame for the paucity of worthwhile legislation coming out of Congress.
If only Republicans and Democrats would start going over to each other’s cocktail parties again, congressional accomplishments would flourish, and we would re-enter an age where enlightened legislators ironed out their differences through compromise and rational discussion.
This is why you so often hear pundits and politicians wax poetically about the holy grail of “bipartisanship.” To hear them tell it, before the Clinton era, the Capitol building was a brotherhood of mutual respect and comity. Sure, there may have been ideological differences, but when it came time to work, our noble representatives rolled up their sleeves and got things done.
And it is true that for much of the 20th century, there was a sort of “gentleman’s truce” in effect, which could well have played a role in allowing for compromise. But it was always somewhat of an illusion, and when Newt Gingrich and the Contract for America boys took over the shop in 1994, the gloves came off completely.
Since then, congress has devolved into a seemingly never-ending partisan slugfest, with the opposing parties constantly jockeying for ways to put each other over a barrel with the voters. Perhaps the most striking manifestation of the current atmosphere in Congress came soon after President Obama’s inauguration, when John Boehner—at the time the Republican Minority Leader in the House Of Representatives—flatly stated that the GOP’s top priority was to ensure Obama’s failure.
It would be difficult to imagine any high-ranking congressperson making such a statement a few years back. Now, just to be clear, the major difference between then and now is mostly one of style rather than substance. By and large, the types of games that Boehner alluded to—where our duly elected representatives are more concerned with political advantage than actually addressing the many challenges facing the nation—have been played since there’s been a Congress. It’s just more in the open now.
So what changed? Why did they drop the facade?
To answer that, we must first explore the origins of the so-called bipartisan era that seems to inspire such nostalgia among the establishment’s denizens.
In the 19th century, Congress was hardly a house of cooperation and goodwill, as the country was rending itself apart—first over the issue of slavery and then over the issue of reconstruction. In one particularly violent incident, Preston Brook, a Southern congressman, savagely beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts right on the Senate floor in response to an anti-slavery speech by the Senator.
It was actually during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt that the atmosphere of Congress changed, as FDR put together a broad coalition with which to address the brutal economic depression of the 1930s. This coalition included urban dwellers, labor unions, Catholics, ethnic minorities, the poor, and Southern whites.
Putting together such a disparate coalition required some deft politicking on the part of the Roosevelt administration, part of which included an arrangement with the Southern whites—known as “Dixiecrats.” Essentially, they agreed to back Roosevelt’s economic policies, as long as he kept his paws off of segregation and Jim Crow.
In other words, Roosevelt was able to take on the banks that had caused the financial crisis only by agreeing not to address the evils taking place down south. So while he was able to pass buckets of legislation dealing with economic assistance and stimulus, getting a bill that banned lynching through Congress was out of the question.
It was this coalition—built on a devil’s bargain—that gave rise to the bipartisan era. And when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the coalition began to fracture. The Dixiecrats, never truly on board with the progressive economics of the New Deal coalition, found a more fitting home in the Republican Party, with their laissez-faire economics and white-is-right culture.
The realignment took several decades, but by the Clinton era, it was complete. From that point on, there was no longer any need to put up the facade of courtesy and cooperation. There was no “big tent” coalition to preserve. There were only people who held power, and people who wanted to hold power.
So when you hear some cable news gasbag or some geriatric congressperson lamenting about bygone days of bipartisan cooperation, remember a few things. One, to the extent that such an era actually existed; it was because of an agreement not to challenge the barbarism of institutionalized white supremacy. And it was ended as a result of the legal recognition of black and brown people as equal citizens under the law.