The Politics of Bipartisanship

Voters in Canada and the United States now both have governments that must share the exercise of power with their opposition. Voters in both countries have increasingly demonstrated a volatility in elections. As party allegiances decrease in number, independent voters become more a factor in choosing governments. In Canada, we are entering our sixth year of minority government. The ruling Conservatives under Stephen Harper must obtain the support of at least one of the three opposition parties to survive in office on critical issues.

In the United States, we are back to the American version of power sharing-divided government. The American voter has chosen this course during the Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush Administrations. Outside of current dissatisfaction with incumbents, why do Americans seem to prefer divided government?

An acknowledged trait of American government throughout history has been the role played by political bipartisanship. The founding fathers were not proponents of party politics. Their belief was that politicians could come together for the greater good. Yet over the years, political parties have been successful in achieving progress through bipartisanship. Generally speaking, and there are multiple examples, foreign policy is one area where the political parties usually try to find common ground. Civil rights legislation, the defining issue of the last century, was achieved when politicians went beyond the political divide, and produced landmark progress for the civil society. America is so much better for it.

The first two years of the Obama Administration have witnessed a crescendo of polarized debate that has led many learned observers to conclude that the system is becoming dysfunctional. Democrats blame it on Republicans’ obstructionism, and Republicans attribute this to “socialistic” tendencies and rigid ideological positions taken of the Pelosi Democrats. The recent Obama-GOP tax deal may begin to change the politics that has become the “usual” in Washington to something more in line with what voters actually prefer. The deal may have upset the more left leaning Democrats and the incoming Tea Party types, but it conveyed a willingness to compromise on both sides.

On November 2, the American people chose to have a Republican House of Representatives and reduced the Democratic advantage in the Senate. It marked the return of “divided government”, but by calling it divided government, it does not mean the imperative of division. Quite the opposite, the founding fathers carefully designed a “government of the people, for the people and by the people”. The separation of powers, along with the exercise of check and balances, make US government unique and has provided the most stable democracy in the history of mankind. Granted, there can be periods where the politicians may consider local or partisan concerns more important than the overall public good. But history has shown that the system has generally worked more effectively when the bipartisanship and compromise occur.

The November 2 election results have consequences, to coin an Obama phrase. While the new Congress has yet to be sworn in, political realities and economic imperatives have converged in this lame duck session. Having to deal with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, and having to consider extending unemployment benefits to those who have just lost them in early December has created a context for choosing between bipartisanship or congressional gridlock. It seems the President and the current Republican leadership believe the former is a better course.

In the past few days, the spirit of bipartisanship has carried over to DADT, START treaty and 9-11 Responders bill. The American system of government functions best when there is an effort to achieve bipartisanship for the greater good of the electorate. At the end of the day, voters like it and see it as a more effective way to getting results that make the country advance.

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