Looking back on my formal American history education, I recall how much emphasis was put on the positive power of compromise. Problems were solved, disputes avoided, great policies forged in the fires of debate and reconciliation.
I remember learning of the three-fifths compromise, the infamous deal that broke the deadlock at the Constitutional Convention about how enslaved people ought to be counted for purposes of representation in the federal government. The compromise, of course, was to count them as three-fifths of a person. What a brilliant solution, my teacher emphasized, a creative middle point between the two factions wanting either zero or whole. A country saved by the power of compromise, just as it would later be by the Missouri Compromise, the one that drew a line down the middle of the country and said any new states admitted above that line cannot have slaves and any states below it can.
But these are childish narratives for a children's education. As an adult, one has the power to reflect on the more complex legacy of these and many other compromises. What does it say about our country that it was founded on the premise that some people were treated as property and quite literally counted less than others? Are these compromises really worth celebrating given that they only delayed the inevitable war over these unbridgeable differences? After all, the Missouri Compromise was repealed just 34 years later under yet another compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, one traditionally omitted from the compromise lore because it was enacted amid a bloody struggle over slavery that foreshadowed the Civil War to begin just seven years later. And what should we make of the fact that today, right now, we are still fighting about how to count people for purposes of representation in government?
Adult questions for adult institutions, perhaps. Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate has proven once again it is only interested in children's stories.
For the last several months, the Senate has been worshipping at the altar of bipartisanship, or compromise by another name, in a quest to, as Delaware Senator Chris Coons wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "bring our country back together" via a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Coons added that "nothing will showcase that the United States is back like seeing Republicans and Democrats coming together around a bold infrastructure package that will make us more competitive around the world."
The details of this bill are not encouraging for those concerned about the future of our planet. The compromise, which President Biden has signed on with, entails tabling crucial policies needed to mitigate even more terrible consequences of climate change than what we're already locked into, hoping to pass those through a Democrat-only reconciliation bill Biden said if the reconciliation bill doesn't pass, he won't sign this compromise deal But we don't know what this reconciliation bill looks like, or if it can pass the necessary climate change mitigation policies without additional compromise for centrist power brokers like Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin, two of the Senate's most stalwart bipartisan worshippers To put it more simply, in order for any of the meaningful climate change provisions to pass, the people most committed to bipartisanship will have to abandon that commitment, because Republicans do not want it to pass.
In the current bill more money is committed to infrastructure that harms the environment than to sustainable ones and remediation efforts. It is, in other words, a compromise agreement that climate change can and will get worse unless Democrats are able to perform a dangerous balancing act to get enough Republicans to sign on to passing this bill while also passing the reconciliation bill on the narrowest margins.
The argument is familiar among moderate Democrats, one that substitutes policy goals like reducing emissions in a manner that could actually benefit ourselves and the rest of the world with the type of mushy feelgoodery one expects from a depressed parent hoping to save a broken marriage with one more pleasant family dinner.
Chasing this dream of bipartisanship, some Senate Democrats are signing on to continue the very infrastructure policies that have gotten us into the position to require a gigantic infrastructure bill to begin with: there are too many roads that require too much maintenance that local and state tax dollars cannot financially support, but federal legislation continues to incentivize building more of these roads, making our infrastructure even more expensive and unsustainable to maintain. All the while, federal policies continue to incentivize the building of unsustainable residential subdivisions that encourage sprawl and car-dependency, a demographic pattern that cannot continue if we want to reach a net-zero emissions economy.
The road to climate ruin, in this case, is paved with bipartisan support.
The myth of bipartisanship is powerful because it is deeply embedded in our ideals. It is the wishful thinking of a nation that has always been bitterly divided over basic questions like who gets to vote and how those votes should be counted, not to mention that these issues are often disputed with violence, not just peaceful debate.
Many bipartisan worshippers, including Joe Biden, wistfully look back on a bygone era of Senate congeniality and wish it could return. As with most nostalgic tropes, rarely do they specify an exact period they wish to return to, because it doesn't actually exist. But insofar as I can tell, they're broadly referring to the postwar years, in particular the years from Eisenhower in the 1950s to Watergate. Some extend the bipartisanship golden era even further into the Clinton years, although Democrats will rarely do this because much of the legislation passed under the neoconservative and neoliberal Reagan-Bush-Clinton eras, in particular around immoral mass incarceration and inequality-boosting global trade agreements, are now widely and appropriately regarded as deeply flawed at best and potential human rights violations at worst.
These were, to put it lightly, different political times. Being a Republican or Democrat didn't instantly signpost one's identity. A democrat could be a progressive like Idaho senator Frank Church or a southern racist like Georgia senator Richard Russell. A Republican could support the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and massive expansions of publicly-funded health care like Richard Nixon did when he signed them into law or vehemently oppose any and all forms of government intervention like Barry Goldwater. The Republican mayor of New York in the 1960s, John Lindsay, was essentially a democrat by many modern standards, especially on racial issues, and also a member of the same party as Goldwater who voted against the Civil Rights Act. There used to be such a thing as a "liberal Republican" or "conservative Democrat."
This so-called bipartisanship manifested in most votes of the era, because the parties simply didn't reflect ideology. To take just one of countless examples, the landmark 1964 Voting Rights Act: 46 of the 73 votes in favor were Democrats, meaning 27 Republicans also voted in favor. Of the votes against, the vast majority (21) were also Democrats. This sounds like bipartisanship when we apply the politics of today—party politics—retroactively to history, but it is a fake kind of bipartisanship, because nobody is actually compromising on the partisan divides of the day. There was a clear pattern to the Democrat votes against the Voting Rights Act. Both senators from the following states voted against it: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. They would all, of course, be Republicans today.
Successful bipartisanship is an illusion projected by the mirage of history. There was no bipartisanship in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, because the people who supported civil rights for all voted for it and the people who did not voted against it. It was, rather, an exercise of power in a democracy, the complex dynamics of which is the adult's version of political history and resistant to morality tales of camaraderie and good will among men.
Over the ensuing decades, each party gradually aligned to become the parties we know today, where conservatives and the religious right gravitate towards the Republican party and liberals and progressives align with the Democrats. Why exactly this happened is a complex enough question to require several books. Luckily, historian Rick Perlstein has written them, so if you're interested in how and why this happened, I highly recommend checking them out.
Of course, in an ideal world, the two parties should work together to be a productive government that serves the interest of the American people. Each side wants certain things, politicians have their own provincial interests that need to be served or ignored according to the merits of the ideas, and a compromise ought to be arrived at that everyone can live with. That is the standard to which the supposed greatest country in the world should hold its politicians to. You know, to be adults.
Unfortunately, we do not live in that world. While other countries are, for example, enacting moratoriums on new road-building projects and making huge investments in sustainable travel options because there is simply no more time to waste on getting to zero emissions, Democrats are trying to talk us into spending more on new roads that will lock in more emissions for the simple reason that it is what Republicans will agree to.
As with all negotiations and potential compromises, the relevant question is not "can we do a deal?" but rather "what are we compromising on?" There is always a deal to be done if one shrinks low enough, there is always a compromise to be had if one surrenders enough of their beliefs. And sometimes the appropriate course of action is to not make a deal at all. We may be at that point with the infrastructure bill, since it may well be better for the environment to forgo all the other elements of the infrastructure bill if it means no new roads. But that is, of course, not ideal, because we need to maintain what we have and we need to build a lot more of the sustainable infrastructure we don't have.
There is a time and place for true compromise, but not on the issue of climate change, an existential threat to our future we have spent far too long compromising on. Of course, Republicans also believe there are issues which cannot be compromised, including on issues relating to climate change. That is the adult version of our nation's history, two opposing factions with irreconcilable differences that agree, for a time, to change nothing, ignorant of the fact that when nothing changes everything does, and in the end every dispute is eventually settled, one way or another. The Senate is compromising, all right, but not in the way that they think.