What is politics? Politics is a struggle between competing interests. What is politics not? Politics is not an ultimately unimportant game that you play in order to make friends. If you write about or participate in politics for living, please do not fuck this up.
We are living through one of the periodic waves of loud cries for “bipartisanship” in our national politics. The sort of people who believe that politics should be covered just like sports have noticed, with their keen eyes, that the level of political disagreement in American right now seems to be rather harsh; just last week a Congressman was shot, for chrissake. These observers do not like such harshness. This view was best embodied by a sappy CBS Sunday Morning segment last weekend about the Democrat vs. Republican Congressional baseball game—a segment that features Steve Hartman making the case that “everything Congress needs to know to fix our political acrimony they learned in Little League,” and culminating with this suggestion: “After every session of Congress, after every State of the Union, all parties should line up... just to say good job, or thanks for being here. You don’t have to change your positions. You don’t even have to compromise. You just have to reach across the aisle and show some civility.”
Civility. It’s considered the highest virtue among the bipartisanship crowd. Every so often, America’s pundit class—and not a few of our elected officials, particularly the ones who happen to be unpopular—engage in a collective cry for more civility in politics. We must use this Congressional baseball game to commit to civility. We must nurture this moment of political civility. And hey, would it kill the press to have a little more civility?
The standard diagnosis for the lack of civility in our politics centers on partisanship. America is divided. Gerrymandering has rendered Congressional districts more partisan than ever before. Therefore in order to cure this dreadful plague of incivility, we must reach for bipartisanship. This is the holy grail of those who are so thoroughly a part of the successful establishment that any substantial change to the American system is likely to effect them negatively. Billionaire financier David Rubenstein, a man who is certainly capable of doing a lot for the hungry and homeless, instead focuses his charitable giving on promoting patriotic symbolism and uses his Washington connections to host bipartisan dinners with members of Congress in hopes of promoting civility. Wealthy and well-connected DC socialite Sally Quinn, who spent decades hosting fabulous parties in Georgetown for a universe of power brokers, sadly saw her influence wane due to a lack of bipartisan civility. Tepid centrist Evan Bayh declared he was leaving the Senate because of its lack of civility, prompting moans from David Brooks.
Politics is little more than a baseball game when you don’t need anything. Civility seems like a pressing matter when you already have everything else you require. Bipartisanship sounds like a good idea when ideas affect you in purely abstract ways—when your rights and your power and your wealth and your standard of living will all be fine no matter what Congress does. This describes the situation of the vast majority of the pundit and political class bent on promoting bipartisanship. When all of the important things in your life are peachy, it is easy for surface matters like manners to take on an outsized importance. Why be so partisan, when it’s all a game? Why be so mad at each other about politics that we can no longer have nice parties? Aren’t we all here, primarily, to party?
Everything in politics cannot be solved by compromise. Abortion is legal, or it’s not. That awful Supreme Court justice is confirmed, or he’s not. Pollution is properly regulated, or it’s not. Our tax system is sufficiently progressive, or it’s not. We go to war, or we don’t. Every one of these choices is ultimately a statement of morality—a conviction about what is right and wrong. Valuing “bipartisanship” on the really important issues is an admission that you have no real beliefs. What are bipartisanship and civility in comparison to life and death and human rights? How important is bipartisanship in the context of losing your health care, or sending your son off to be shot in a war? Where is the compromise to be found in an economic system that allows the very rich to accumulate staggering fortunes as tens of millions struggle to survive? Anyone with any sense of decency would be ashamed to be caught railing about the value of Congressional games when there is a real possibility that these people could force your neighbor to seek a back alley abortion and then be bankrupted by the resulting medical complications. Anyone with a proper understanding of the stakes of politics will find this fetish for politeness obscene. Is civility a greater value than life and death and war and human rights? The bipartisans, who desperately seek compromise for the sake of their own social comfort with little regard for the human costs, are amoral monsters. And they should be treated as such.
Some things cannot be reconciled. Democratic socialism cannot be reconciled with crony capitalism. A belief that health care is a human right cannot be reconciled with a belief that only those with enough money deserve decent care. A belief that workers deserve the right to organize cannot be reconciled with a belief that unions should be eradicated. A belief that a certain military action is immoral cannot be reconciled with a belief that it is necessary. Bipartisan compromise on such issues is not a virtue; it is a sin. And a pathetic one. It is a sin of not caring about things that you should really care about. It is, ultimately, an admission that you feel that matters that do not hurt you personally do not rise to the level of things that are worth speaking up about.
Politics is a fight. Some people will lose. This is good. Some people deserve to lose. Some policies deserve to be eradicated. Some things deserve to be fought for. Bad things are happening, and we can try to do something about them, or not. You cannot change this fact with apathy. All you can do is hide the bad things behind a curtain and pretend they don’t exist. If that is your approach, you deserve to be told to fuck off.