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Dump the Bipartisan Mush: Here’s How You Do It for Real

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Here’s how serious people transcend ideological differences. And we don’t need no stinkin’ ‘no labels’ badges.

All the talk lately of “bipartisan consensus” and the smug No Labels movement brought back to mind the surely apocryphal but truthy story of the Russian visiting a U.S. Senate aide shortly after the fall of Communism in the old USSR. “Please explain two-party system,” the Russian asked, having no experience with multi-party democracy. “It’s simple,” explained the Senate staff veteran. “We have two parties in America—the stupid party and the evil party. Since I’m a Republican, I’m in the stupid party, and we stupidly battle against the evil of the evil party.”

“But sometimes the two parties get together and do something really stupid and evil. We call that ‘bipartisanship.’”

Not even Jon Stewart can nail it more accurately than that.

Everyone says he or she is for ‘bipartisan consensus,’ but usually this represents nothing more than lowest-common-denominator compromise.

Everyone says he or she is for “bipartisan consensus,” but usually this represents nothing more than lowest-common-denominator compromise—necessary from time to time, but hardly a political philosophy. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had it right when she scorned consensus as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus’?”

I have some skin in this game. Recently I was involved in a long effort that produced “Post-Partisan Power,” a blueprint for energy innovation written in collaboration with Mark Muro of the center-liberal Brookings Institution, and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the progressive-leaning Breakthrough Institute. How did these strange bedfellows come together to produce something bridging ideological lines? Well, we didn’t do it by holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” engaging in typical horse-trading or the other low arts of compromise, or glossing over fundamental principles.

Instead, we did it in the only serious way possible: long conversations (as in day-long, several times), and genteel argument. It took a year and a half in total. Rather than debating disagreements, we argued about them at length, which is not the same thing. It was more like an advanced graduate seminar, with everyone looking for academic literature and other evidence to illuminate problems and persuade others about a particular point.

‘What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?’

Of course, the prerequisite for such a process is an essential openness by all participants to consider challenges to their points of view. I had taken note of Shellenberger and Nordhaus back in 2007, when their book Break Through was published. Here were two thinkers inside the environmental community who were willing to reconsider several fundamental assumptions about environmental thought. Increasingly, I’ve come to regard their book as the “Moynihan Report” of environmentalism. Patrick Moynihan, recall, was vilified in the 1960s for worrying about family structure, because it clashed with the redistributionist monomania of the Left at the time. Shellenberger and Nordhaus depart from Left-environmental orthodoxy on climate change in seeing the near-term suppression of fossil fuels as a hopeless strategy, and argue for conceiving the whole problem differently. Like Moynihan in the 1960s, most of the green Left has denounced them.

Something Moynihan realized in the early 1970s comes to mind here. He wrote that the thing most needful was “a simple openness to alternative definitions of a problem and a willingness to concede the possibility of events taking a variety of courses. This ought to be the preeminent mode of liberalism, and yet somehow it is not.” Swap out “environmentalism” for “liberalism” in this last sentence, and you will put your finger on the problem of climate change (and environmentalism generally) today.

Rather than debating disagreements, we argued about them at length, which is not the same thing.

Thoughtful liberals eventually came around to recognizing that Moynihan was right in his concerns about family structure. Will environmentalists come around to recognizing that Shellenberger and Nordhaus are right today? We’ll see.

For my part, I remain unconvinced by the case for catastrophic global warming, and in the strict sense I do not believe we suffer from “market failure” in energy. But uncertainty on climate change cuts in both directions; there are some serious structural problems in the energy markets that make them vulnerable, and above all the world is going to need massive amounts of new energy sources over the next 50 years, so a program of getting ahead of the curve is worth considering.

Not all of us in our small working group are equally enthusiastic or persuaded by every point in “Post-Partisan Power,” but we’ve definitely shown how serious people go about transcending ideological differences. In fact, we’re setting in motion a sequel: “Part-Partisan Power 2,” a new round of patient deliberations about the second-order details of implementing the framework to improve its chances of success.

And we don’t need no stinkin’ No Labels badges.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Hayward also gave “Two Cheers for the Clean Air Act,” decried “The Irrelevance of Modern Political Science,” and portrayed “Environmentalists as Battered Spouses.” He traverses “From Cancun to Kyoto,” suggests “How to Think about Oil Spills,” and ponders “The Energy Policy Morass.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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