I want to put in a good word for partisanship.
This might sound strange to some readers. I’ve written a lot about our problem with tribalism, including hyper-partisanship and political polarization. It was a major theme of my cheerily titled book “Suicide of the West.” So I’m happy to concede that too much partisanship — or partisanship of the wrong kind — can be very bad.
But unity can be bad, too. Excessive unity cultivates groupthink and breeds contempt for dissent. It tends to ride roughshod over minorities, and not just in the sense of racial, religious or sexual groups. Ideological minorities — including the smallest minority, the individual — can get trampled by the unity stampede.
Self-described nationalists insist the country needs more unity — around their ideas. Self-described socialists also crave unity, but only around their agenda. In any large society, the demand for unity is usually the demand for power in a winner-take-all contest between different groups.
Our Constitution is set up around the idea that unity is scarier than disunity. The Founding Fathers designed a system that prevented any one group, or “faction,” from imposing its one-size-fits-all unity on everybody.
Ironically, the founders never envisioned political parties as a major component of this system. James Madison eventually embraced parties, but most of the founders were closer to Thomas Jefferson’s view that if the only way he could get into heaven was by joining a party, he wouldn’t go.
It was Martin Van Buren, the eighth president and true architect of the two-party system, who understood how crucial parties were. He studied the so-called Era of Good Feelings after the War of 1812, when the country was supposedly united under a single party. But, as political scientist Joseph Postell writes, “The problem with the Era of Good Feelings is that it was actually an era of bitter feelings and bitter conflict.” It’s just that the conflicts were between factions within the government.
Partisans have all manner of incentives to poke holes in the opposition’s arguments and proposals — some patriotic and principled, some more base and selfish. But the process of political combat, which is supposed to take place in Congress, not on cable TV or Twitter, should get us closer to both the truth and a consensus about the way forward. The public is supposed to be the jury. Unfortunately, too many jurors only want to hear arguments from either the defense or the prosecution.
It’s a cliche to note that the party out of power only cares about deficits and debt when it is out of power. This hypocrisy is annoying and at times dishonorable. But it’s better than the alternative. If it’s true that unlimited borrowing, mostly from China, to pay for things we can’t afford is bad, better to have someone saying so, even if they’re doing it for cynical purposes. Such complaints at least serve to check runaway deficit spending.
Last week, we crossed a Rubicon with the new bipartisan budget deal proposed by President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It marks the end of either party even pretending to care about such things. It’s a victory of the sort of bipartisanship and unity so many claim this country needs. And it is a perfect example of how unity around a bad thing is worse than disunity over what constitutes a good thing.