We hear bipartisanship lauded as an ideal much more than we did one or two decades ago, especially in the United States. This is, of course, a direct result of the fact that in reality the atmosphere of partisanship there has become so much more acute as a result of the Reagan presidency, the Culture Wars, and the war against Islamic extremism. The dictionary says simply that bipartisanship is something supported by both parties, especially two major political parties, and if asked to define it I think most people would say something like, "Bipartisanship is when the two parties stress pragmatism over ideology and their own political gain to address a common problem".
This sounds all very well, but in reality bipartisanship is a highly perplexing concept which is often little more than rhetoric.
The paradoxical essence of democratic politics is disagreement and accommodation. Disagreement is inherent in human life and socio-economic structure and requires no further explanation. As for accommodation, individuals and parties participate in the democratic system because it allows for the peaceful and lawful transfer of power between various groups in society at regular intervals. I may not rule now, but I will rule in the future: and because of this, it is much more important that there be regular elections than that I win any particular one. This, in turn, requires me to accommodate myself to the rule of my opponent when I am the loser in the democratic process. Democracies fail, especially emerging ones, when groups are unwilling to accept this loss and attempt to perpetuate their power through other means.
Democracies have all sorts of ingenious mechanisms for ensuring the diffusion of power throughout the system of government, so one faction is always limited in the damage - or, in its own eyes, the good - that it can do during its period in office. Regular elections are one of these mechanisms, and parliaments, judiciaries and constitutions are others. The key point of these mechanisms is that they ensure that the power of the ruling faction is diluted by the power of the other factions. Parliaments provide for the representation of citizens whose faction is relatively weaker than others. So, for instance, the United States currently has a Democrat as a president, and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, but there are still 178 Republicans in the House. They were sent there by the combined vote of 49,700,000 Americans, and it is their constitutional duty to represent those Americans.
This sets the scene for our understanding of what bipartisanship really means. The reason we engage in politics is because we disagree with our fellow-citizens and yet must share a country with them: disagreement and accommodation, as I set out above. Now, say there is a controversial issue up for discussion, and profound differences of opinion on how to handle it among the two main parties. One side may want an income tax, the other may believe it immoral. One side may believe it immoral not to provide universal health care, another may not. We will hear from both sides a call for bipartisanship, but it is not at all clear that there is any way a proposal can be crafted that can be supported by both sides and without either having to abandon its principles. If you believe an income tax is immoral, you believe an income tax is immoral: the details of its size, or how it is collected, are secondary issues.
To put it simply, when two factions disagree on a fundamental issue, the call for bipartisanship means "abandon your principles and adopt mine".
Calls for bipartisanship often carry with them an implicit or explicit condemnation of partisanship, of sticking to one's own interests and principles without considering those of others. Yet we must remember - to stick with the example of America - those 49,700,000 Americans who voted for the Republicans and not the Democrats. For the elected representatives of these people to espouse the principles they were elected to espouse is not a betrayal of the people or the democratic process, but the essence of it.
Indeed, the point of the democratic system is precisely to provide for nothing to happen when there is profound disagreement on even the necessity for action. A system that did not provide for this check on the power of whichever faction is largest at a point in time would be a tyranny of the majority. Democracies provide for this inertia because otherwise the democratic process itself could lose its legitimacy, as if it acts against the fundamental interests of one faction then that faction may no longer accept the trade-off between its own rule and the rule of its opponent. In a democracy, factions have to respect each other's interests enough for the system to remain worthwhile for everyone. This is why Barack Obama could not sign the extant healthcare legislation after the electoral loss in Massachusetts, a decision which disproves some of the worst things his opponents say about him.
It seems to me quite obvious that the idea of bipartisanship has its roots in liberalism. The liberal ideal of politics is an ongoing, reasoned discussion between human beings which has as its goal the betterment of all. When liberals talk about bipartisanship, they envisage everyone coming together, shedding the particular prejudices and narrow interests that they have in everyday life, and deciding to do what is best for everyone. A similar logic underlies the liberal emphasis on diplomacy in international relations: if only everyone talks for long enough, and with an open mind, they will find common interests and a way to live together. It goes without saying that the liberal often has very specific ideas about what precisely it is that is "best for everyone", and believes that the other side will acquiesce to this opinion if only they address the problem objectively.
Unfortunately, this is a profound misunderstanding of how politics and the process of human living-together really works. This is because it ignores the beliefs and sectional interests that define who we are as individuals; we are not the "blank slate" of liberal theory and nor are we behind its "veil of ignorance". We are people who exist in a world where we have jobs, a family, those we love, and beliefs. There is no God-given assurance that there can be a common ground between our beliefs, and no assurance that you can convince me through rational discussion to adopt your point of view, or that it is best for my job, family, or those I love. The idea of an "objective" view of a political problem is a myth, for ultimately the solution must satisfy diverse and unpredictable human beings.
A call for bipartisanship is in a way a call for a principle to be put beyond politics, in a realm where our disagreements and own interests will somehow be rendered unimportant; but of course if something is to be put beyond discussion, it must have an incredibly large base of support indeed. In the United Kingdom, the provision of universal health care enjoys this status. To attack it is political suicide. We would rather endure enormous costs than abandon it. This is not because we're more bipartisan than Americans, but because we do not fundamentally disagree about the principle of state interference in healthcare. The principle is beyond politics; yet it was the democratic process and the will of the people - in other words, politics - that originally put it there.
On issues where profound division exists, the democratic system rightly creates the conditions for a lack of progress. We are free to lament the opinions and beliefs of our fellow citizens, but not free to criticize them for standing up for those interests, or defending their beliefs; to do so is a tiny and imperceptible step towards the end of democracy, and one would do well to imagine how one would feel if the boot were on the other foot.