Barack Obama has recently been criticized in some quarters for his anti-partisan rhetoric. The thought seems to be that if a future Obama administration is not willing to wage heavy political warfare against the Republicans, and thereby align its agenda closely with the Democratic party machine in both style and substance, it will be extremely difficult to get anything valuable done. Better to be a partisan warrior and implement progressive policies by all the means at one’s disposal than to miss out on a unique opportunity to accomplish some of the goals the left holds dear.
There is, of course, truth and a sobering realism in such a view. Any president who thinks he can rally everyone to his cause by giving inspired speeches and simply asking for what he wants will eventually crash into the solid rock of opposition. And the more controversial the goal—universal healthcare, for example, or any policy at all regarding taxes—the more solid that opposition will be. Making progress on these matters will thus require knowing who one’s friends are and fortifying some well-chosen political ground.
But the call to partisanship, and its corresponding suspicion of supposedly trans-partisan efforts, often goes farther than a mere call to realism. In some of its guises, it can sound like a militaristic rallying cry—a challenge to defeat the enemy at all costs. (To illustrate, a Paul Krugman column in Slate last year bore the title “Progressives, To Arms!” Krugman has been among the most vocal proponents of an entrenched partisanship on the left and, therefore, one of the most consistent Democratic critics of Obama. See, for example, his most recent NYT column here.)
What these cries miss, however, is while politics clearly has its competitive side, it is importantly different from other forms of competition. In sports, for example, the aim is simply to defeat one’s opponent. Score more points than the other team, win the game, and go home. Similarly, the goal on the battlefield is to overwhelm, if not eliminate, the enemy. Even if humanitarian impulses have brought one to the point of armed conflict, the rule of combat is always the same: Kill or be killed.
In politics, on the other hand, one presumably does not want to vanquish the enemy. Democrats and Republicans may be in a contest for votes during election cycles and they may at times compete for victory in battles over legislation on Capital Hill. But in political victories, we do not eliminate our opposition and we cannot just go home, never having to think about them until the next game rolls around. Rather, political adversaries must live with their opponents. Indeed, if they are motivated by anything other than naked ambition, they will want the best for their opponents and will think that to defeat them is, in a roundabout way, to serve them well.
If this is view of politics does not always hold among the politicians themselves, then it would seem to obtain more widely among the public. We may disagree violently with our friends and relatives. But what we want is for them to agree with us—to come over to our side. We do not, one desperately hopes, want for them to be eliminated. And if we do genuinely hate our opposition (or at least think that we do), it is probably because all of our friends think like us. Ideological uniformity makes it easier to demonize those with whom we disagree.
When fierce partisanship begins to sound too militaristic, it therefore becomes difficult to reconcile with our day-to-day lives and Obama has tapped into this reality better than any politician in recent memory. While sticking firmly to the conviction that his vision for the country is superior to that of his political rivals, he has recognized that defeating the Republicans in November, or Hillary Clinton in the primary, is not the same as conquering a dangerous foe. We must lead our lives alongside those with whom we disagree and figuring out how best to do that, while simultaneously working toward the ends we believe to be important, should always be on the minds of those in power.
To be sure, the simple fact that a candidate recognizes the importance of this task is not a sufficient reason to vote for that candidate. But it is a reason not to belittle the effort.