It’s remarkable how fairly unimpressive columns can generate more serious commentary. Yglesias joins in, making some of the right points on the origins of the GOP, though he neglects the importance of the “Know-Nothings” and the American Party in the 1850s as one of the significant sources of later Republican supporters. The American Party served as a kind of way station between the dying Whigs and the rising Republicans for antislavery Whigs. In the end, though, the only way a third party has ever succeeded in becoming a major national party is by gaining most of the supporters of one of the two major established parties. The new party has to have a clear rationale for existing. Needless to say, this is as far removed from the entirely personality-driven Bloomberg-Hagel craze and Unity ’08’s Broderistic fetish of bipartisanship as can be imagined.
It is also worth noting that Broderism (or the “centrism” of “moderates”) is the very antithesis of what has always motivated third-party politics in this country. Where third-party supporters (and I have been one in the last two presidential elections, for whatever that’s worth) want to have more representative government that reflects the diversity of political views in this country, adherents of Broderism find even the mild disagreements between the two established parties to be unsettling and painful. Were Broderists ever exposed directly to the rough-and-tumble chaos of a proportional representative political system, they might become seriously ill. Where third-party supporters would like to heighten differences over important policy questions and sharpen debates, because we think policy arguments have meaning and the right policy choices are more important than comity among members of the political class, the Broderists would like to mute disagreement and muddy the waters. In our view, the major parties are virtually indistinguishable in practice in so many of their general views about policy, while the Broderists imagine that the two parties shout at each other across a deep and wide chasm.
It isn’t that the Broderists and “centrists” haven’t got an agenda exactly, but that it seems to be an agenda culled from the worst aspects of both sides of the spectrum. It is by combining the worst of both worlds that the political class creates the consensus, and it is the consensus that determines the limits of permissible debate. (As a side note, I would add that this is most especially true in the foreign policy establishment, which has an even more narrow range of permissible views.)
Take the immigration bill, since the “failure” of immigration “reform” is something that troubles Bloomberg, Hagel and Broder. It might very well trouble them, since they all tend to favour more liberal immigration policies and pro-corporate immigration policies, and the defeated bill was the embodiment of both. The bill would have undermined U.S. sovereignty and exploited immigrant labour, but because this nasty compromise could initially command a consensus in the Senate it was deemed to be “reform.” For the Broderist, any legislative achievement would seem to be better than none, provided that it has “broad, bipartisan support,” to use an old phrase. The merits of the policy are less important than the breadth of support it can command, and there is nothing more damning that can be said of a policy than that it is divisive or was approved on a party-line vote.
After four years of war in Iraq–a war approved on a bipartisan basis–we might reconsider the virtues of bipartisan collaboration and unity. If we had a more fierce opposition party, divided government might even at some point produce more sane policy decisions rather than mere stalemate. The last thing we need is more tame opposition to the majority, or more deference of the legislature to the executive. We have a government of divided powers and an adversarial party system, so we might as well try to use them for their proper purposes of checking power and preventing usurpation. Of course, Broderism is simply a symptom of a political culture that tells us that government is here to provide us with services and to “get things done,” rather than to meddle as little as possible in our affairs.