The end of bipartisanship (and why that may be good)


Legislative partisanship is gone and that may be good. It was probably overrated.

The holy grail of politics for many is bipartisanship. Good public policy is only possible if the two parties compromise, work together, and enact laws with the aim of furthering the public good. Such a belief suggests truth lies in the middle and that compromise is the essence of good government. But that is not always so.

Some lament that the 2013 Minnesota legislative session was anything but bipartisan. Significant evidence supports this. Consider legislation creating the health care exchanges for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); 99% of DFLers voted for it, 98.8% of Republicans voted against it. Similar partisan divides existed with legalization of same-sex marriage with 95.5% of Democrats voting yes, 94.4% of Republicans voting no. Or the House and Senate tax bills with 92% DFL yes and 98.8% GOP no. Finally, 92% of DFLers voted for the legislation authorizing day-care workers to unionize, no Republicans supported it. For these four bills, 94.6% of votes cast by Democrats were yes, while 98% of the GOP votes cast were no. Had there been floor votes on minimum wage and the anti-bullying legislation one probably would have found similar percentages.

Are Democrats guilty of single-party rule? Perhaps, but Republicans are not innocent. Look back to the 2011-12 legislative session at two of the biggest bills–the votes authorizing the constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and requiring photo ID when voting. For the marriage amendment, 96.2% of Republicans votes yes, 96.5% of Democrats voted no. With the elections amendment, 99% of Republicans voted yes, 100% of Democrats voted no. Overall, 97.7% of DFL votes cast on these amendments were no, while for Republicans 98.3% were yes. When the GOP were in the majority, the two parties were polarized. Straight-party line votes are becoming more the norm of Minnesota politics, paralleling a similar trend in Congress over the last 30 years. Why? There are four major reasons.

First, the end of the Cold War meant that the forces to drive compromise at the congressional level ended. The battle against communism forged a foreign policy consensus and compromise that translated often into agreement on domestic policy, even at the state level. Second, political scientists talk of the declining marginals–the disappearance of competitive swing districts that could shift control from one party to another. This is due to gerrymandering but more importantly to a geographic sorting of where we live. We hear of blue and red states but increasingly households and neighborhoods are politically sorting themselves out. In Congress there may be less than 50 swing seats, in the 2014 Minnesota House of Representative races, maybe 15 seats are competitive. The rest are solidly partisan, creating little incentive to compromise,

Third, American political party composition has changed. Historically American parties were less ideological than at present. One could point to both major parties having a mixture of conservatives, moderates, and liberals. Such coalitions made bipartisanship possible. But American political parties are more ideological now–with clear divides on social and and economic issues.

Fourth, the transformation into ideological parties is fueled by increasingly large differences over the simple question “Why government?” Republicans and Democrats have developed rival views on the role of government in the economy, the value of taxes and public spending, and on a range of social issues about reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. When there is a basic disagreement over “Why government?” it is hard to compromise. At the end of the day, there is no compromise on the right of same-sex couples to marry–you support it or not.

These four trends have also driven politics in Minnesota to make it less bipartisan. But additionally, Minnesota politics further polarized after the Wellstone plane crash in 2002. His death and the events in the last few days before the 2002 Senate race–including the memorial service–exacerbated the forces already at play in Minnesota to reinforce the polarization.

This is where we are now. The structural forces that once drove bipartisanship are gone and the new reality is one of partisan rule in Minnesota and across many states that are legislating depending on which party is in power. Just compare Minnesota to Wisconsin.

Should we worry about this? Not necessarily. Agreement for agreement sake is not good if it passes bad policy. Sequestration was the product of compromise. Minnesota Democrats and Republicans agreed on a new campaign finance law this session that increases contribution and spending limits, weakens disclosure, and enhances the ability of lobbyists to leverage political influence. Both were bad laws, the product of bipartisanship.

Regardless of the desirability of bipartisanship, it is over. Voters need to accommodate to a world of partisan rule or bipartisan gridlock. They have to decide whose politics they like better and vote for it–giving them what appears to be real policy choices and options at elections.