The Bipartisan Illusion

Jamelle Bouie wrote a terrific opinion piece in the July 30 New York Times [LINK]. He completely dismantles the argument advanced by Senators Joe Manchin (WVA) and Kristen Synema (AZ) that the best way to achieve voting rights is through bipartisan cooperation.  Bouie reminds us that the 14th and 15th Amendments were enacted by one party, and that all of the significant civil rights enforcement laws of the Reconstruction Era were too.

Bouie concedes, however, that the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights act were passed by bipartisan majorities. His explanation: the two parties were not ideologically unified. Each had a liberal and a conservative wing, which in the case of the Southern Democrats was the result of the marriage of New Deal social democrats and Southern racists whose power rested on the historic exclusion of Black people from voting.

But Bouie does not adequately explain why this ideological diversity has evaporated. First, let’s clear up one thing:  the Democratic Party remains ideologically diverse to this day, with a newly emboldened socialist wing and a contingent of so-called ‘centrists’ who cater to white suburban swing voters. It is the Republican Party alone that has ousted its centrist wing and consolidated on a racist, nationalist an authoritarian ideology now called Trumpism. This Republican Party has no illusions about or interest in bipartisanship.

As I have argued in other posts, this trend towards greater political polarization reflects the social crisis created by neo-liberal capitalism. Bipartisanship was practiced in an era of a widespread consensus on the American Dream and the middle class as the lynchpin of the American social order. Hyper-inequality and forty years of attacks on government policies to redistribute benefits from the rich to the middle class and the poor have shredded the belief in the American Dream, ripped apart the middle class and plunged the poor into a deep crisis.

This social crisis has now become undeniable to virtually everyone except for opportunists seeking to hold onto ‘centrist’ politics. Republicans have rebranded themselves as a radical political party of the right, and most Democrats (including newly ‘woke’ Biden) have rejected neo-liberal premises in favor of social democratic ones.   

The only politicians left holding onto the dreams of the good old days of bipartisanship are those Democrats who are actively defending neo-liberal policies. Those who have come to their senses and realize the true gravity of this moment are beginning to understand that we need a new Reconstruction Era, and that this one, just like the first one, will have to be championed by one political party on its own.

The real test of the Democratic Party is now upon them: will they shrug off the demagogic appeals to bipartisanship being used to defend the Senate’s filibuster rules and find the courage to pass the For the People Act by themselves? Or will they allow Republicans to enact state laws to suppress voting rights as part of their strategy to give birth (yet again) to a white nationalist America? There can be no illusion about one thing: the defense of the filibuster is now, as it was in the 1950s, the defense of white supremacy, not bipartisanship.

This moment is not only a test for the Democratic Party. It is also a test for progressives. It is everyone’s responsibility to compel the Democrats do whatever they can to enact the new voting rights protections, including suspending the filibuster rule. But right now, there seems to be little energy on the part of progressives to do so. While some groups like the New Georgia Project and the Poor Peoples Campaign are trying hard, their efforts have not produced a mass movement capable of moving national politics. Unfortunately, most civil rights organizations are showing their utter inability to engage in grassroots organizing and most labor unions are sitting on the sidelines.

Now is the time for progressives to mobilize their constituencies in every way they can. We may look back at the summer of 2021 as the moment when American democracy was saved or when American fascism began. To paraphrase MLK: Where do we go from here?

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