The historical anomaly of postwar bipartisan cooperation

I just posted something bemoaning the fact that the concept of a “loyal opposition” is fading away, reminiscing about how things were different in the Good Old Days.

Which, I know, irritates some of y’all.

So, as compensation, I’ll write about a good piece I read this morning by Michael Barone that points out that the era of “we’re all Americans and we’re all in this together” that I recall was largely a historical anomaly, a product of the shared experiences of Depression, world war and postwar expansion, combined with a very unified, common (as opposed to fragmented) mass media culture.

Which I realize is true.

The headline — “Washington Is Partisan — Get Used to It” — is a little misleading. The actual text doesn’t shout “Get over it!” at us UnPartisans the way the hed does.

But it does effectively make the point that there’s nothing new about American’s being bitterly divided.


Politicians in Washington during the Midcentury Moment actually did gather at five o’clock to sip bourbon and branch water in Capitol hideaways and then roll out bipartisan compromises on the floor the next day. Genuine friendships and constant communication were established across party lines, despite great enmities—remember that this was also the era of Joe McCarthy….

America’s Midcentury Moment was just that—and American politics has returned to its combative, partisan, divisive default mode. In the 1790s, Americans were divided over a world-wide war between commercial Britain and revolutionary France. Political strife was bitter. In the antebellum years, Americans were deeply split over issues from the Bank of the United States to slavery in the territories. For three generations after the Civil War, Americans North and South lived almost entirely apart from each other.

The Midcentury Moment emerged as the result of three unexpected developments, two of them unwelcome—depression, war, postwar prosperity—and was communicated through the language of an unusually vivid and unusually universal popular culture. Absent these things—and it’s hard to see how they could return—our politicians aren’t likely to all get along.

I urge you to go read the whole thing, if you can get past the paywall (they allow some pieces to be free; I can’t tell whether this is one, since I subscribe).

I’ve always known that growing up under the leadership of the WWII generation gave me a view of the possibilities of consensus government that would have seemed unlikely to an American in, say, the 1850s. (And given my communitarian proclivities, I’ve always felt deprived that I didn’t get to live through the time of the purest manifestation of that national consensus, in the 1940s.)

But allow me to argue that the kind of politics we experienced in the 1950s through, to some extent, the early ’90s (after which that generation gave way to the far more bitterly divided youngsters who didn’t remember WWII) should be the norm, not the exception. Even if it isn’t.

To begin with, we’re not living in a time defined by such conflicts as those Barone describes in those earlier period. We’re not batted about by two other superpowers as during the Napoleonic wars (and the conflict of that period was also sectional, with the commercial interests of the north aligning more with commercial Britain, and the Jeffersonians in the South leaning toward France — just to oversimplify).

We are not torn apart by slavery, or by the deep bitterness of Reconstruction.

Our differences are rather tame by comparison. What is the great national trauma that should be dividing us so? I suppose some would say it’s overspending. Which, I’m sorry, is kind of… disappointing… as a cause for Americans to refuse to play well with others.

Others would say (if they’re not afraid of being hooted out of the room as was Jimmy Carter) that it’s our national economic malaise. Which is real enough; I can certainly attest to that. But again, it seems inadequate as a reason for us to be at each other’s throats politically.

I say that because it’s not in any of our interests to be this dysfunctional. OK, so people hold certain political ideologies passionately (which makes no sense to me, as the dominant ideologies make no sense to me, but I accept that other people feel differently, just as I have to accept that most of my neighbors love football to an alarming degree).

But no matter your ideology, it’s not in your interests to have a political system in which nothing can get done. Whether you want to balance the budget or enlarge the welfare state or project American influence or withdraw to within our borders, you can’t get anything done in a system that can’t, for instance, pass a continuing budget resolution without the government shutting down.

It’s just, frankly, crazy to prefer to achieve none of your goals if you can’t have things completely your way.

Maybe Barone’s right to suggest that there are natural forces that drive us apart that are as much part of the natural political order as entropy is of the physical. Under that theory, only powerful unifying forces such as the three he cites (Depression, WWII followed by expansion, a commonly shared mass media culture) can overcome that tendency, and then only temporarily.

But we are supposed to be thinking creatures. We should be able to overcome that, if only to serve our common and individual self-interests.

It should embarrass us if we can’t.

6 thoughts on “The historical anomaly of postwar bipartisan cooperation

  1. bud

    Bi-partisan cooperation gave us Vietnam, the Iraq war, the watering down of banking regulations that led to the financial crisis, no child left behind, the unfunded medicare part d, and a whole host of other really bad stuff. So let’s be careful for what we wish for.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Well, you should be comforted by the fact that all of those things UNDERMINED bipartisan cooperation.

    Bipartisan cooperation, by the way, also gave us victory in WWII and the Cold War, the G.I. Bill, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and more than a generation of unparalleled prosperity.

    Don’t always look at the dark side.

  3. Ralph Hightower

    I was born after WWII when B&W television became common in households and old enough to watch the first landing on the moon; I work with some people where they learned about the lunar landing from history books.

    It is a shame that we have elected officials that are willing to take their “ball and bat” home when they don’t like the rules of the game. Those that are willing to take hostages just because they didn’t get their way should not be reelected. Unfortunately, gerrymandering is in full force to ensure that politicians retain their seats. There are white districts, black districts, Republican districts, and Democrat districts, all to insure that the incumbents remain in power, Districts should be redrawn where the outcome of the election is 50-50.

  4. barry

    My grandfather- a WW 2 vet that passed away a few years ago would often tell me – a politician that isn’t willing to make some compromises doesn’t deserve to be elected.

  5. Bryan Caskey

    There used to be two camps:

    1. Democrats: They want the government to be helping people more, being involved in people’s lives as a force for equality and fairness, regulating out the harshness of life. Government is ever expanding, but with good intentions.

    2. Republicans: They want the government to be just slightly smaller than the Democrats, but they still want to use it for their own purposes. Government grows, but not as fast as the Democrats want it to.

    In the past, compromise was easy for these two groups. They weren’t diametrically opposed, so they could find some common ground. Now, we have a third camp: the anarchist, know-nothing, hostage taking, arsonists, crazies who want to actually reduce the size and scope of government.

    Here’s why compromise is so hard between the first two camps and the third camp . One side, you’ve got a group of people who don’t want new ways to do the old things, they want the government to be doing fewer things period. The GOP says, it’s not possible to shrink government so we’ll just manage it better and not make it as big as the Democrats want (at least at first). And the Democrats want it to grow faster and bigger than everyone else.

    So it’s hard to cut a deal.

  6. Nick

    Politics has become a conflict between the true believers and the infidels. The true believers would rather there be no country at all than the infidels get their way.

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