One of the most intriguing aspects of the current debate on
the economic recovery act is the strange way the terms “postpartisan” and
“bipartisan” are being thrown around by both politicians and the media.
President Obama campaigned as a postpartisan candidate. Postpartisan means that politics must
move beyond the current party structure. A postpartisan vision recognizes that there are many voices in the larger body politic–and
that a good number of those voices have never been heard in the American
process. Thus, postpartisan, a
sort of generational mantra for those under 40, is an attempt to create new
relationships, draw diverse people and perspectives to a table, and develop
innovative possibilities to address social and political issues.
In case no one in Washington has noticed, postpartisan does
not mean bipartisan. Yes, the root word–partisan–is the same, but the prefix is different.
“Post” means “after, beyond, or subsequent to;” “bi” means “two.”
Now, folks in Washington are a very smart group–they
attended lots of private schools and good colleges and most of them probably
studied Latin. Yet, every time the
new President says “postpartisan,” they substitute “bipartisan.” For nearly two weeks now, pundits have
been fuming about the failure of “bipartisanship” on the recovery package. Republican politicians have asserted
that because they didn’t vote for the act, President Obama’s attempt at bipartisanship
has failed a mere ten days into his administration. “He’s just like Bush,” some say. “Bush came to office calling for bipartisanship, but he was
really just the old politics of division.” In other words, bipartisanship can never work in our
political system. Someone has to
take charge–be a leader–and enforce their party’s will on the other side.
The new progressive vision is not based in the idea that there
are TWO parties. “Progressive” is not
simply a linguistic find-and-replace for “liberal” as in “liberal” versus “conservative.” Emerging progressive politics–and
religion as well–insists that there are more than two voices. The voices of the common good and the
voices of vibrant faith come from multiple traditions and perspectives, and all
of these voices matter.
Progressives, unlike old-style liberals, approach this multiplicity with
a certain degree of modesty.
Progressive politics isn’t about winning nor is it about balancing two
agendas. Progressive politics is
about setting tables, about hearing and listening, about constructing new
possibilities where none currently exist.
It is pluralistic and adaptive, not dualistic and winner-take-all. Progressive
politics is not a zero-sum game.
President Obama has long recognized that politics is not
about two parties. More than a
year ago, he said: “I think the American people are hungry for
something different and can be mobilized around big changes, not incremental
changes, not small changes. I think that there are a whole host of Republicans,
and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don’t
believe anybody is listening to them, who don’t believe what politicians say.
And we can draw those independents and some Republicans into a working
coalition, a working majority for change.”
President Bush promised “bipartisanship,” a bringing
together of two parties. That
failed. President Obama never
promised bipartisanship. He
promised a new era of moving beyond the old two-party politics–he promised “something
different” around “big changes.” He promised to create something “after, beyond, or subsequent
to” the two-party divide that would include those who have been excluded. He is trying to forge a post-partisan
path to an innovative future.
But he is trying to do that with a Congress that doesn’t
understand the language he speaks.
The congressional Republicans and Democrats have something profound in
common. They are stuck in a
dualistic world. How can they move
forward? A good first step would be to remember first-year Latin: postpartisan
does not mean bipartisan.
Sometimes a world of new possibilities turns on a phrase.