Civil Partisanship is Not a Bad Thing

Divided Congress lacks something more crucial than bipartisanship: civility.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

There's been a lot of writing lately about the need for "bipartisanship." Too often, those who are decrying the death of bipartisanship these days are really just upset at the lack of something else. That something is "civility." My high school Latin teacher, Sister Marie Lawrence, would point out here the roots of civility: It comes from the Latin "civilis," meaning "relating to citizens." Its first English meaning related to good citizenship and orderly behavior in society. Only later did it come to mean politeness. When Congressman Joe Wilson yelled "You lie!" on the House floor during the president's speech, that was uncivil. 

Partisanship is different. You can be partisan and civil at the same time, and in fact, should be. John Stuart Mill once said this about partisanship: "A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life." In his Political Dictionary, Bill Safire pointed out that on the positive side, partisanship is basic to the two-party system, which he defined as "the adversary system of arriving at truth in government." On the down side, it is attacked as "introducing unnecessary strife, placing party advantage above the public interest." 

Being partisan, to me, means making the best case for the philosophical principles of your party. Similarly, ideology is the basic philosophy of a political party. The problem is that being an "ideologue" is a bad thing now because it's become associated with being a demagogue (well, it does rhyme). That's why when President Obama declared, "I am not an ideologue," it raised so many hackles: He seemed to imply that he was nonpartisan or somehow "above politics," of which he is neither. In fact, his progressive agenda is very partisan, which is why it's not attracting too many Republican votes. 

Dan Balz wrote in the Sunday Post about last week's healthcare debate

"Thursday's largely civil and intelligent summit underscored the deep philosophical gulf that remains between the two sides over healthcare (and many other issues). Both agree that the healthcare system needs repair but significantly disagree over how to fix it. That is a genuine difference that seven hours of talking did not begin to narrow ... 

"Democrats think more government is the answer; Republicans say the opposite, that market competition is the best antidote to the ailing system."  

There's nothing wrong with that. Maybe it's a way of arriving at truth in government. E.J. Dionne echoed this idea in the New Republic this week, discussing the philosophical and emotional differences between the two parties on healthcare: 

"The point is not that Republicans are heartless and Democrats are compassionate. It's that Democrats on the whole believe in using government to correct the inequities and inefficiencies the market creates, while Republicans on the whole think market outcomes are almost always better than anything government can produce. 

"That's not cheap partisanship. It's a fundamental divide."  

There's nothing ugly or extremist or crazy about standing up for what you believe in, as long as you do so without calling people names or questioning their patriotism. If common ground on the issues--that is, bipartisan compromise--can't be found, as Dan Balz suggests, "then a midterm election fought over big ideas and genuine philosophical differences seems entirely appropriate." More than appropriate. It's terrific. I think most people would look forward to it.