Snake Oil and Unity08
by Jonathan Singer, Wed Dec 06, 2006 at 12:28:59 PM EST
Yesterday in Breaking Blue I posted a couple of video clips of Law & Order's Sam Waterston, one of him extolling the virtues of Unity08, an organization intent on backing a bipartisan presidential ticket in the 2008 election, the other of him pretending to sell robot insurance to the elderly during a fake Saturday Night Live commercial. In case the comparison were not clear enough -- and apparently it wasn't, because I have been asked by the organization to "share what [my] point is" -- please bear with me for a few moments as I meander through my editorial reasoning.
The stated goal of Unity08, according to its website, is to nominate, though a secure nationwide online primary, a ticket of one Republican and one Democrat or one headed by "an independent who presents a Unity Team from both parties." If I understand correctly, the assumption is that bipartisanship is in and of itself an end rather than a means, that America would be best served if the politicians could simply give up on their party allegiance and instead dedicate themselves to principle and compromise.
I will admit that there was a time when I might have believed in such an initiative. After all, my American history textbooks from my childhood spoke of a great period of bipartisan comity that spanned the greater part of the post-war period. But what these books did not explain -- and what makes such a bipartisanship near impossible today -- is that the fact that the relationship between the two parties during the post-war era was one in which the Democrats held what amounted to a permanent majority in Congress, particularly in the House, and as a result Republicans, predominantly blue-blooded Northern Republicans, knew they had to kowtow to the Democratic leadership if they wanted any say in Congress.
To expand, following the Democratic victory in the US House elections in 1954, there were never fewer than 232 Democrats in the House for the next 40 years (one more Democratic member than was elected last month, though that number is still subject to change). After the big Republican defeat in the 1958 midterm elections, there were never fewer than 242 Democrats in the House -- and that only occurred twice, following the wide presidential victories of Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. In short, Republicans in Congress were largely neutered during this period with little to no hope of ever exiting the minority (or so they thought).
But Congressional Republicans today, just like Congressional Democrats over the last dozen years, have not grown accustomed to permanent minority status. And as a result, they will not soon accede to the type of red-headed stepchild status they held during the "bipartisan" period following World War II, just as the Democrats have not and will not give in to the idea of permanent Republican control over Washington.
This is all a long way of saying that the type of bipartisanship we remember from the not-too-distant past is a remnant of a period not soon to be reproduced.
Yet I have gotten off point, to an extent. Even if I am wrong in my estimation that we are not going to see 1960s or 1980s style bipartisanship any time soon, my naysaying does not address whether the goal of bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake is a good idea.
On the surface, I would argue that the answer is yes. When one party -- either party -- becomes too entrenched in power, its members in government begin taking actions that place the continuation of power above the enactment of positive policies. As others have said, hubris sets in. Accordingly, it can be beneficial for either party to realize that they can lose at any time so that they set to the task of attracting the support of voters rather than manipulating the system to keep their majority status.
What's more, when people of one ideological stripe set to formulating policy amongst themselves without the input of others (particularly those with differing or even opposing views) there is great capacity for negative results. The wars in Iraq and Vietnam are but two examples of foreign policies gone awry when dissenting voices are not heeded.
Bipartisanship, however, is not a panacea. It is not even necessarily a solution to the problem of hubris. Both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, the two examples of crowding out views that do not conform with leading opinion, occurred at times of bipartisanship, when majorities of both parties supported policies that would eventually bring great loss of life and resources. Bipartisanship did not stop these failures. In fact, one might argue that bipartisanship perpetuated them.
So when you look more closely at the concept of bipartisanship rather than merely thinking of it abstractly or looking at its surface level results you quickly notice that it is not a particularly enticing end, nor is it such an effective means. Instead, it is a nice-sounding nostrum, a snake oil to peddle to voters, if you will.
This all gets me to the point of my Breaking Blue post in a roundabout kind of way. In the SNL spoof I embedded in Breaking Blue, Sam Waterston plays on the concerns of the elderly by ginning up the ultimate straw man: dangerous robots that feed on the prescription drugs of the elderly and even threaten to kill old people. As a remedy, Waterston, who uses the cachet gained though his time on Law & Order to bring in older viewers, suggests a modestly-priced robot insurance knowing quite well that such a service is unnecessary.
In the Unity08 ad, Waterston also cashes in on his name recognition from Law & Order -- but this time for real. Here, he brings up a number of things Americans dislike about their political system, including the mudslinging, the high cost of elections and the avoidance of issues (a claim I would take issue with, but that's a rant for another day...). As a solution to these ills Waterston suggests bipartisanship, explaining that he has met with the founders of the movement and is convinced that they can rise above these problems and usher in a better type of politics. There is little explanation of how, exactly, they will achieve this, but that is no matter. People trust Jack McCoy so they will trust the actor who portrays him, Sam Waterston. They will buy Unity08, just as they bought robot insurance.
I don't begrudge Sam Waterston for standing up on behalf of something believes in, nor do I think that Unity08 is wrong for enlisting a spokesman who they believe to be effective. But at the same time I reserve the right to expose absurdity, whether through the pairing of a video intended to be serious with another poking fun at the heart of the first or through a rambling, though hopefully reasoned rant.