Should Obama Really Be Pressing for a Consensus?

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Mr. Gregg is Assistant Professor of History, University of Nebraska, Omaha.

Bipartisanship—or consensus—has become a powerful motif in American politics. Pragmatically, the American political structure with both a strong legislative branch and a strong executive branch as well as a party structure that does not enforce legislative conformity on its members requires some degree of cooperation across party lines. On the other hand, politicians of all stripes invoke the term in a cynical effort to silence dissenting views. Nor should we discount the natural human tendency to avoid conflict. However, the desire for bipartisanship is also very real for many Americans and is partly rooted in some powerful historical beliefs and myths that have given rise to a faulty understanding of the American past. Forged in large part by a group of historians practicing in the middle decades of the twentieth century (often referred to as the “consensus school”), the argument goes something like this: American society drew its strength from the ability of politicians and people to forge a broad middle ground and exclude from the political process those—on the left and the right—committed to a more radical path. This broad consensus required a certain surrendering of personal desires as national leaders came together to accomplish the legendary “what’s right for the country.” Unfortunately for today’s believers in bipartisanship, this interpretation of American history has almost as much myth as fact.

The concept of consensus is commonly rooted in the revolutionary period, drawing strengths from the ghosts of the founding fathers. While it is true that a general (although far from universal) consensus held the country together during the revolutionary war and lasted to a large extent through the Constitutional Convention it began to unravel in the 1790s. Rancorous political debates took place from 1796 onward. The election of 1800 was one of the bitterest and most divisive in American history. Following a tied electoral college vote, and a partisan debate in Congress, Thomas Jefferson emerged as the third president.

Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural address, delivered in the aftermath of this animosity, is often seen as a shining example of bipartisanship. Jefferson called for all Americans to “unite with one heart and one mind,” to reestablish harmony in order to strengthen liberty, and famously declared that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” But, as James Sharp explains in his excellent American Politics in the Early Republic, Jefferson was not promoting a political landscape where Republicans and Federalists joined hands and worked together. Rather, Jefferson believed that the 1800 election meant that those Americans who could vote had come to their senses and repudiated Federalist ideas. The future, he believed, would mean the disappearance of the Federalist malefactors and the return of all the people to the republican ideals which he espoused, a most partisan belief. In many ways, Jefferson’s speech contains the genesis of the spurious call today to “do what is right for the American people.” From 1801 consensus allegedly rolls through American history, averting division and violence except on rare occasions (the Civil War for example).

The first problem with this interpretation of American history is that it is decidedly not the complete picture. In fact, one could argue that the extension of liberty in American history has come not from consensus but from confrontation: the partisan arguments over slavery which emerged in the 1850s; the western populists of the 1890s; the women’s suffrage movement; the argument over the New Deal in the 1930s. Even one of the shining examples of bipartisanship—the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s—is not as straightforward as many would believe. It is true that there was bipartisan support from liberal Democrats and liberal and moderate Republicans to push those bills through Congress. But, and this is crucial, that bipartisan support came after hundreds of thousands of African-Americans took a partisan position that enough was enough. In so doing, they motivated hundreds of thousands of white Americans into supporting their cause. The bipartisan congressional action on legislation was brought about by partisan political action by millions of Americans.

Even when it comes to national defense, where politics famously stops at the water’s edge, we need to be careful in how we embrace consensus. True, we can only speculate what would have been the impact during World War II if the majority of Republicans made it their mission to undermine FDR’s war policies. But, on the other side of the coin, consider the Vietnam War. One reason it became a running sore was that neither Eisenhower nor Kennedy nor Johnson were ever compelled to make a public case for American involvement in southeast Asia because there was a general bipartisan agreement that American intervention was necessary.

Despite these realities of American history, the idea of a founding consensus which sustained the country together in subsequent decades holds a tremendous cachet in the American consciousness. In part this is because even if the myths of history aren’t completely true, the concept itself seems to be so noble. How could anyone oppose the idea of a national consensus? This brings me to a second point, that the pursuit of bipartisanship—or consensus—contains hidden dangers that make it more likely to undermine American political liberty and stability than to sustain it.

Again, consider an historical example: at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, slavery was the single biggest threat to the creation of some kind of national government. Most historians agree that, for better or worse, the inclusion of any anti-slavery provision would have aborted the constitutional process. But, as historian Joseph Ellis observed, the tragedy of the Convention was that no-one even tried to address the issue. The Convention ignored slavery because it arrived at a consensus to ignore it. In so doing, it gave constitutional blessing to continuing human bondage for more than eighty years.

Today, the calls for bipartisanship flow from the same types of places as they did in Philadelphia in 1787: a relatively small number of people at the political center of the country. This group of politicians, analysts, media members, and others tend to think in ways that bear similarity to those of the founders. They do welcome political debate; but only within a narrow field of vision. They believe that people to their left and right are being partisan, they, on the other hand, they believe, are neither ideologues nor partisans, they are just doing what is best for the country. Consensus itself becomes the goal and those who refuse to go along must be rejected. Perhaps neither Tom Tancredo nor Dennis Kucinich would have made a good president. But they should have been rejected by the voters after their ideas were heard – not kept on the fringes of the debate by those seeking a mythical consensus.

This is the insidious danger of bipartisanship: the need to exclude anybody who rejects the consensus. For example, say Politician X claims the mantle of being someone who can bring the country together (as both major candidates claimed in 2008). Then, if Politician X claims s/he has created a bipartisan solution to a problem then, by definition, anybody who rejects that solution must be working against the consensus. That is, they are a threat to unity and must be marginalized, rejected (something Senator McCain, in particular, showed a proclivity for). This is how Jefferson saw the Federalists in 1801 and it is essentially what was done to the abolitionists in the 1840s.

The reality is that the United States is, and always has been, a country of partisan divisions. James Madison recognized this more than 220 years ago and argued that the “multiplicity of faction” was a strength not a weakness, warning that the attempt to eliminate faction (i.e. partisanship) would lead to tyranny. Even landslide presidential elections have demonstrated this: in 1936, FDR won 46 out of 48 states, with more than 27.7 million votes (60.8%). But Alf Landon’s 36.5% still represented more than 16.7 million Americans who voted against Roosevelt. When Reagan won 49 states and more than 53 million votes (58.8%, almost 37 million people voted against him. Even Barry Goldwater’s inept campaign netted more than 27 million votes against Lyndon Johnson’s 43 million or so. Barack Obama won an impressive 66.9 million votes last year, but more than 58 million voted against him.

Those who wring their hands at the thought of partisan “bickering” and “name-calling” are missing the point. Bipartisanship is the reason we get the “big issues” of why Obama did not wear an American flag lapel-pin and how many houses McCain owned. In the absence of any real debate over truly partisan political issues, candidates have little alternative but to launch partisan personal assaults on one another. What the American political system needs is not more bipartisanship but a demand from the American people for partisan candidates. The country would be far better served with candidates of all political beliefs who will stake out clear and defined positions on important issues. They need to explain why they are right and their opponents are wrong, rather than claiming they will seek a mythical consensus.

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  • Gil Troy: Yes, Obama Should Press for Consensus

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    Larry N Stout - 2/3/2009

    This has it; Troy's rebuttal does not.