Real Bipartisanship Starts with Trust
It’s that time in the political cycle after a judgment has been rendered by the electorate, when pundits like to divine a message in the results. This time there were multiple messages, but one of them was a desire for more “bipartisanship.” But “bipartisanship” means different things to different people.
For the party in power, it’s “Can we get the other side to go along with us, rather than be ‘obstructionist?’” For the party in the minority, it means “Can we get anything we see as important done?” For lobbyists and others promoting legislation, it means “Can we get our important legislation through the process with Republican and Democrat authors and votes?”
All of these players see cooperation as essential to achieving their larger goals, whatever they may be, but the extent to which they will go to achieve it depends on a number of factors, some of them external to the process.
First of all, the leadership of both parties needs to trust one another—a hard thing to ask in the wake of a contentious election. In place of that trust, there can some external check like transparency. When you have a governor who prefers to negotiate behind closed doors, this is made somewhat more difficult. Nevertheless, the principle is one worth fighting for, in and of itself, for the health of our institutions and for building the kind of trust that is needed to work together.
Another type of check can exist in the project at hand. The Legislature’s primary job each session is a balanced budget—the governor’s, their own or more frequently, some combination of the two. Congress, which doesn’t have to produce a balanced budget, faces a similar challenge for the first time as we approach “sequestration” in closing the budget gap. Numbers can’t be finessed as easily as words and must be made public at some point.
Secondly, the process benefits when all sides sharpen their arguments but not their tongues. This is something that seasoned political veterans scoff at, but which marks an important distinction between how the public sees political conflict and the way the political class sees it. The political class devalues words, preferring to look to actions. The media, however, hypes words, and thus the public is shown a political process that is filled with constant verbal confrontation. When it isn’t available on the floor, reporters will seek it out, bait it and hook it. And why not? When people agree, it’s boring. But if politicians withhold certain kinds of incendiary remarks, it will make the media focus on something else, even if it means they have to work harder at understanding and explaining the process to do it.
Personal attacks aren’t needed if you have the ideas, the data and the understanding to back up your arguments. And this leads to my third point about the nature of bipartisanship: People have to be free to disagree, without being vilified for that disagreement. Not shockingly, even the same set of data will lead people to different conclusions, let alone different data from different sources. Legislators bring with them to the Capitol different interpretations, experiences and ideas; their own and those of the people who elected them.
Saying someone is wrong doesn’t show a lack of civility; saying someone is evil or impugning their motives does. Pretending that someone is showing a lack of civility because they disagree with you does nothing but display the weakness of your own arguments. Achieving agreement to disagree on some principles is crucial to moving the process forward, not allowing it to caught in the whirlpool of a political stalemate.
Conflict is normal in democracy; it is not dysfunctional, Minnesotans’ natural passive aggressive tendencies notwithstanding. It is not something to be overcome in our politics. We don’t need, nor should we seek, a complete values consensus to move forward. At the same time, respectful disagreement is a necessary part of the process, and attempting to paper it over or shout it down will get us nowhere.