When future historians seek out a representative scene to distill the essence of our unique age of political folly, it will be hard to surpass Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s recent star turn at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center. The symbolic pageantry of the occasion alone was overwhelming: here was a feckless apostle of political obstructionism for its own sake holding forth at a podium supplied by the era’s most disciplined practitioner of obstruction for ideology’s sake. Both Sinema and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell are notoriously bankrolled by the most venal and compromising financial interests, and both are militantly proud of that fact. And both, far from coincidentally, profess awestruck devotion to the sacred antidemocratic rites of Senate lawmaking—most especially the filibuster, which began life as a blunt tool of racial suppression and continues to thwart any and all instrumental progress toward the expansion of our formal democracy.
To complete the whole dumbfounding picture, Sinema was holding forth on the mythic virtues of bipartisan governance in the intellectual house of McConnell, a man who has redefined the meaning of “scorched earth” when it comes to ramming right-wing Supreme Court nominees through the upper chamber of the national legislature, while blocking Democratic ones. But Sinema’s act of prostration was more than garden-variety hypocrisy—it was a useful limit-test of the hollow pieties of bipartisan comity in a political order that has no earthly use for them in practice.
According to political scientist Ed Burmila, author of a new history of Democratic centrism, Chaotic Neutral, the modern D.C. cult of bipartisan legislating owes its origins to the very sort of regressive policy vision that is now Sinema’s calling card. “In the ’90s, Bill Clinton and his allies in the Democratic Leadership Council argued that the only way for Democrats to get back on top and win was to fundamentally accept right-wing arguments, and say Democrats could accomplish those goals better,” says Burmila. “And the only way that could be palatable to Democrats was to redefine success as bipartisan, to say that you can pass legislation with a Republican set of goals, but you can also temper the extremism of a Newt Gingrich.”
Over the past generation of congressional Democratic governance, the proceduralist reverence for centrist and bipartisan accords on Capitol Hill has only grown, as Grand Bargains and Gangs of Four, Eight, and Fourteen have solemnly convened to produce new models of adults-in-the-room dealmaking. The mystic spell of the bipartisan ideal continued to exert its appeal among the Beltway set even as those side deals collapsed one after another (the odd occasional breakthrough, such as enabling the continued right-wing capture of the federal judiciary, proving scarcely preferable to collapse).
The notion stubbornly endured even while genuine bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill yielded some of the worst legislation of our lifetime. When you name-check Congress’s great bipartisan breakthroughs, you have summoned forth such unlovely specimens of lawmaking as the Clinton welfare repeal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley and Commodities Futures Modernization Act, which both laid the groundwork for the 2008 financial crisis. You have also invoked the disastrous TARP bailouts that professed to mop up the damage from the 2008 meltdown while directing lavish giveaways and bonuses to Wall Street. (In a particularly grim irony, the TARP bailouts also provided the raison d’être for the ultrapartisan Tea Party movement that would later morph into Trumpism.) And leave us not forget No Child Left Behind, the resolution to invade Iraq and the USA Patriot Act—a multibillion-dollar gift to the national surveillance state passed in a display of bipartisan spirit so overexuberant that almost none of the lawmakers stirringly lined up behind it bothered to read the thing.
By contrast, many of the greatest legislative achievements of modern Washington were achieved in strongly partisan congressional votes. Here I don’t just mean the resolution votes that yielded the Inflation Reduction Act this summer and the Affordable Care Act in 2010. No, the vast body of New Deal lawmaking that is the very foundation of confident liberal governance was fiercely partisan, from the Wagner Act to the Social Security Act to the Glass-Steagall Act fatefully undone by Bill Clinton’s pet pair of laws unleashing deregulation-on-steroids for the financial sector. Lopsided Democratic majorities in Congress gave us Medicare; the party affiliation on voting rights laws has shifted over time, but the overall pattern of strong partisan support for such measures has not.
It’s especially worth flagging this latter trend, because Sinema absurdly withheld her support for desperately needed voting rights reforms this winter on the entirely bogus grounds that such measures must get bipartisan backing in Congress. “That’s what you say when you fundamentally don’t believe anything,” Burmila says. “With voting rights, you have two parties, one that says they should be protected, the other essentially saying you shouldn’t have them at all. Just what is the midpoint between those two positions?”
Given this dismal track record, what explains the stubborn fealty in the centers of Democratic D.C. power to the household gods of bipartisanship? In her Louisville talk, Sinema predictably bemoaned the “tribal” turn in contemporary American politics and claimed that voters hunger for greater cooperation in Congress. In reality, the public’s fondness for bipartisanship appears to be overblown. Northwestern University political scientist Laurel Harbridge-Yong notes that the popular attraction to the ideal is a decidedly conditional one. “The public does express a general preference for bipartisanship or compromise,” she says. “But it’s not deeply held, and it’s often overcome by desires for partisan victories.”
Pace Sinema, results seem to make a far deeper impression on voters than the niceties of legislative byplay. Sinema and McConnell’s shared ardor for the filibuster is a striking case in point. “When the filibuster leads to real deliberation, there’s a case to be made that it serves bipartisanship, but when it leads to gridlock, it’s not what the public wants. People seem very frustrated by inaction.” At the end of the day, Harbridge-Jones adds, “If you want to be the majority, you’ve got to show you’re going to do something with it.”
A far more compelling explanation of the vogue for bipartisan thinking is its allure for political elites heavily invested in status quo arrangements. “It becomes a cover for never having to do anything progressive,” says historian Lily Geismer, author of Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. As momentum for Clinton-branded policy triangulation built within the Democratic Party, she notes, “progressive voices were forced out of the administration. And that way you had no counterbalancing forces.”
In the ensuing decades, this lesson in power and access took firm hold among ambitious D.C. policy insiders; centrist and savvy became the watchwords of political advancement among a liberal political class dedicated to arbitrating just what is, and is not, politically possible. The bipartisan ideal is “only important for people in this 1500-person Beltway reality,” Burmila says. “Anyone who’s going to be designated to survive a nuclear attack on Washington—that’s the constituency for bipartisanship.”
An ancillary dogma this class subscribes to is that bipartisanship produces ideological diversity—a necessary asset for any party seeking to carry the day in national elections. In this view of things, senators like Sinema and fellow refusenik Joe Manchin are just part of the pragmatic cost of remaining relevant in a national debate that happens to spontaneously elevate center-right priorities.
But with a fascist-leaning right firmly ensconced in the mainstream, traditional notions of centrism are very much a dead letter. “Look at the results,” Burmila says. “How have we gotten to this point if that strategy has succeeded?” It’s the fixation on capitulating to the rapidly vanishing center, he adds, that leaves Democrats flailing. “Look, the GOP has some ideological diversity, but when it comes time to ram Amy Comey Barrett through three days before the election, they’re all on the same page. So maybe the Democrats need to get rid of this arcane procedural rule of the filibuster. Liberals are horrified at the thought of a purity test, but you really need a basic purity test or two like ‘What will you do to help our party survive?’ Yeah, you can have different opinions on entitlement reform, but you can’t on whether we should govern.”
The bipartisan pipe dream is ultimately antipolitical—a way of doing politics without actual conflict, clarifying debate, or a coherent strategy extending from one election cycle to the next. Neoliberal political elites cleave to the view “that bipartisanship is somehow supposed to signal a mandate,” Geismer says. “It doesn’t. That’s not where mandates come from. You had, for example, a big vote behind the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but then there’s massive backlash after that. It’s a false narrative about American history, and it’s weird how the Democrats have fed this.”
So in one sense, the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center serves as the perfect forum for a shibboleth designed by and for above-the-fray D.C. power brokers who can’t be bothered with the messy business of actual majoritarian politics. The audience at Sinema’s oration was, after all, invitation-only, and she claimed a premium bottle of Old Forester bourbon as part of her honorarium. The only thing the whole set piece appeared to be missing was a hedge-fund lobbyist.