The morality of bipartisanship
Pragmatism, Legitimacy, and Fraternity
Pres. Obama promised and thus far has failed to bring bipartisanship to Washington, D.C. Today he renewed the effort by attending a gathering of House Republicans.
Few, if any leaders contest bipartisanship’s value. It is one of those “golden” concepts of American politics, which Sam–our resident political consultant–can maybe tell us more about. What values, though, does it embody or further?
To the extent that a proposed bill has value, it’s passage is a good thing. If one party does not have sufficient votes to enact a valuable bill without the other’s support, bipartisanship enables the bill’s passage. In this case, the value of bipartisanship is extrinsic or consequentialist, depending on the value of the law it enables, rather than inherent to the concept itself. It prevents legislative gridlock. One concern is that it requires watering down legislation to ensure it passes. But passing a decent law is better than not passing a supposedly perfect law. Bipartisanship gets the job done.
We think that if a bill goes through the required constitutional processes to become law (Article I; “bicameralism and presentment”) it has legitimacy, full stop, regardless of the level of its voting majority. We also think, however, that a law that passes with a 90% majority has more legitimacy than one with 50.5% of the vote.
Legitimacy is a difficult concept, but it concerns the problem of what gives the government a right to enforce coercive laws.
The idea presented here is that the more people that want a law, the less coercive and more legitimate its enforcement. So, the more bipartisan a given bill, the greater the majority, and the greater the legitimacy.
Does that mean, however, that the government coerces, illegitimately, people who don’t vote for a law? No. People’s support for a law’s enforcement–and the law’s legitimacy–exists on two levels. “Legitimacy 1″ stems from people’s support and respect for the (democratic) procedures that create a given statute, even if they or their representative voted against the law. They endorse (and indeed desire) the enforcement of the law because they support the system. “Legitimacy 2″ happens when people desire the content of that specific law; they voted for it.
Legitimacy 1 is all that is required for legitimate enforcement. But there is a deeper legitimacy when Legitimacy 2 is higher. There is less governmental coercion when people not only respect and desire the system at large, but the content of the specific law that affects them. Bipartisanship increases Legitimacy 2.
Fraternity, unity, togetherness, etc. are vague concepts. But there is a sense in which a community working together, as a “bipartisan” unit, is good in itself. Its unclear if that good can be justified on grounds other than two described above. Fraternity is a neglected concept amongst contemporary political theorists.