Can we now dispense with the word “bipartisanship” now?
We are in a Crisis era, a Fourth Turning. Roughly once a lifetime, we go through a period of civic upheaval in which our national institutions (political and economic) have, for one reason or another, become dysfunctional. The last time this happened was in the 1930s-40s with the Great Depression followed by World War II. The time before that was in the 1860s-70s with secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The time before that was in the 1770s-80s with the American Revolutionary War and the framing of the Constitution. You can find out more about the concept at this web site: http://www.fourthturning.com/. But what I want to write about today is not the overall concept of the generational cycle and the Fourth Turning. I want to talk about a specific characteristic that all Fourth Turnings have, this one (so far) included. That characteristic is divisiveness. It’s something that is often decried, but it is in fact a good thing – indeed, an absolutely necessary thing.
A Crisis era (such as this one) is a decisive time. It’s a time when much-needed reforms are put in place, reforms that have been neglected for decades. It is not a time for compromise or soft talk or middle courses. It’s a time when consensus cannot be achieved, when conflict arises between those who see a need for the new and those who would preserve the old, however dysfunctional it may be. It is the nature of such a conflict that it cannot be resolved through agreement. There must be a victory, and there must be a defeat. Consider the three Crisis eras from our nation’s past, beginning with the American Revolution.
In 1773, tensions had been rising between England and the American colonies for decades. The expensive conclusion of the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War to Americans) moved the British government to try to get the colonies to contribute financially to their own defense. A reasonable request, of course, but it ran head-first into the colonists’ conviction that they had come to America in the first place in search of self-rule, and that Crown and Parliament had no proper sovereign authority over America. London’s position was diametrically opposed: the British government insisted on its right to govern all British territory, including the colonies in America.
This impasse had grown over time. Prior to the French and Indian War, the British government didn’t really make any attempt to govern the colonies. Britain used America as a convenient dumping ground for condemned criminals (as she would later use Australia), a source of raw materials, and a market for manufactured goods, but otherwise left the colonists to their own devices. Thought in Britain had always held that the Crown and Parliament held sovereignty and the right to govern, but why bother? As American society became more developed and sophisticated, though, as population grew, and as the war with France forced Great Britain to take an interest in (and spend more money on) America’s defense, the attitude of the British government and that of the Americans approached collision.
A number of taxes were imposed on the colonists in the years following the end of the war, provoking a storm of protest. The government backed down and repealed most of these taxes by the early 1770s, retaining only a token duty on imported tea.
Was the tea tax onerous, an unconscionable burden threatening to reduce Americans to abject poverty? Certainly not. It was barely a tax at all. It would fall short of paying for the French and Indian War by millions of pounds. Most Americans would likely shrug their shoulders, pay the duty, and hardly notice. But the Tea Act, if allowed to stand, set the precedent that Parliament had the authority to tax the colonists and to legislate in other ways. Rather than accept this, a radical group led by Samuel Adams engaged in a bit of guerrilla theater, nonviolent civil disobedience, and applied vandalism, and destroyed a cargo of tea in Boston harbor.
This was not a move intended or calculated to provoke compromise. In response, the British government didn’t compromise, either. It imposed a series of Punitive Acts (or “Intolerable Acts” as the Americans called them) which further roused the Americans’ ire. Americans began forming militias and stockpiling arms and ammunition. The Crown dispatched reinforcements to America and negotiated with the German principality of Hesse for mercenary troops. The Americans formed a provisional government and appointed George Washington commander of its newly created army, which set about besieging the British forces in Boston. Battles were fought. Washington’s forces outmaneuvered the British at Boston and forced them to withdraw. The British thereafter returned the favor at New York City and nearly (but not quite) destroyed the Continental Army. The Congress passed a motion to declare independence from Great Britain. From that point on, the lines were drawn and no compromise was possible. Either America would become fully independent of Great Britain, or the colonies would submit to British rule, but the prior condition of loyal but self-governing colonies would cease to exist, one way or another.
Does this begin to sound familiar in terms of our current situation?
We can also compare it to what happened in the 1860s. Tensions had been building over issues related to industrialization of the country, particularly slavery, for many years. The territories acquired during the U.S.-Mexican War were a focus for much of the argument, since they would eventually become states and their representatives in Congress would weigh in on one side of the divide or the other. The newly-formed Republican Party represented the interests of the northern capitalists and of the abolitionists (who were in agreement over the specific issue of slavery; both opposed it although for different reasons). A moderate Republican, Abraham Lincoln, was nominated for president in 1860. Lincoln was not proposing to outlaw slavery, but did propose to keep it out of the new states formed from the western territories. This would, over time, result in an anti-slavery majority in Congress, and the planter interests saw the writing on the wall.
A true compromise on the issue of slavery would have resulted in gradual emancipation with compensation paid to the slave owners for loss of their property, but the hard-liners were not interested in that on either side. Southern fire-eaters saw an opportunity to provoke secession from the U.S. by states that permitted slavery. The strategy for this was to ensure a hard-line pro-slavery Democratic candidate in the election. Moderate Democrats held their own convention, with the result that the party split and nominated two competing presidential tickets, both of which lost (predictably enough) and Lincoln won with a plurality of the popular vote, exactly as the fire-eaters had intended. Seven states promptly seceded. Lincoln initially attempted a compromise solution and peaceful rejoining of the Union. The seceding states were having none of it. They formed a new central government with a Constitution modeled on the one they had abrogated (with a few appropriate changes) and, in a dispute over a federal fort within the borders of one of the seceding states, went to war.
Once again, an irreconcilable conflict existed. The southern planters wanted to preserve an antique way of life based on wealth generated by growing cash crops with slave labor. The northern commercial and industrial interests wanted to pursue an increasingly mechanized and industrialized future in which slaves would be replaced by machines and finance capital would dominate the entire economy, and the emancipationists, their temporary and ad-hoc allies, wished to free the slaves for moral reasons. A solution might have been found short of war, but it would have required the planters to accept defeat and seek the best compromise deal they could get. They were unwilling to do that. And so the lines were drawn once again, and the conflict fought to the finish.
The Great Depression was less violent, but no less uncompromising. A breakdown of the capitalist economic system with its governing philosophy of laissez-faire left some 25% of the workforce unemployed. Neither the breakdown nor dispute over that philosophy was new; the industrial economy put in place after the Civil War suffered periodic financial panics and depressions roughly every 20 years. The philosophy itself was opposed by labor union activists, anarchists, socialists, and Communists. Class conflict had been intensifying for decades. The Depression brought it all to a head. Herbert Hoover, the president when the economy tanked, was no laissez-faire purist, or so one would judge from his past. But he moved in that direction in the face of disaster, perhaps out of genuine conviction or perhaps because the Republican Party demanded it of him. The conflict this time was political and electoral and did not involve guns (which we may take as a sign of progress), but it was no less decisive. Over the years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, laissez-faire was abandoned. The workplace was unionized, the government regulated the banks and other industries, and the first social welfare programs (Social Security and unemployment insurance) were put in place. By the time World War II was over, a new economy had been crafted, a mix of capitalist and socialist elements. This was not accomplished through bipartisan compromise any more than the changes of the American Revolution or the Civil War were. The divide was sharp and partisan, with the Democrats on one side of it and the Republicans on the other. The Democrats won, and the Republicans lost.
In the present time, we again face a situation similar to those three. The economy has again broken down, although not as severely as during the Great Depression. In addition, we face shortages of key raw materials and severe environmental dangers. The problems this time are global in scope. The global economy is beyond the power of any one national government to regulate – an international means of regulating it is required. One economic problem that was not present in the 1930s was a shortage of fuel; the U.S. was still a net exporter of oil then. Today, we are faced with the need to transform our energy economy away from its dependence on oil – no easy task. We cannot simply apply the same methods that worked in the Depression, despite a superficial similarity.
On all of these points, we do not find national unity. There are voices on the other side, claiming that the problems don’t exist, or that we can solve them without changing the way we do business. In many cases, these voices are cynical and insincere, acting not with genuine public concern but out of a desire to protect private profits. We saw how fiercely the lines were drawn over the health-care reform debate. This is the template for the next few elections. A compromise, “bipartisan” solution will, almost by definition, be an unworkable one. We must accept that the conflict exists. It’s too soon to broker a negotiated settlement. First, we must win. Then we can make peace.
I hope – and given the example of the Great Depression, I cautiously believe – that I speak of “winning” and of “peace” only in metaphor. Some violence, however, has already occurred. It remains to be seen whether those who are defeated at the polls (rather, some of their crazier supporters) will resort to the cartridge box instead of the ballot box. Let us pray not. Such efforts would of course be defeated, but in the course of it lives would be lost for the most futile of causes. In that sense, I hope that we have peace now, not after victory. But at the same time, we cannot let the danger of violence deter us from doing what must be done.
In any case, it’s time to jettison the search for “bipartisanship.” There will come a time later on, after the necessary reforms are in place and their opponents have accepted reality, when consensus may be sought once more. But that time is not now.