In 1987, on the evening of her third general election victory as leader of the Conservative Party, the late and great Margaret Thatcher gave a speech before her constituents in the district of Finchley. It was mostly boilerplate stuff—thanking the voters, praising the poll watchers. But there was also something distinctly un-American going on: the address was constantly being interrupted by hecklers. Every time jeers broke out, Thatcher would smile, durable and unflappable, until quiet was restored.
This is how politics works in Britain, where it’s expected that the nation’s leader can handle an occasional boo or insult. The most familiar illustration of this is Prime Minister’s Questions, where the prime minister engages in a rapid-fire debate with the leader of the opposition while backbenchers hoot and holler. And this is tame compared to many other countries. In 2008, the South Korean parliament had 47 cases of “parliamentary disorder” a polite term for “brawl.”
But here in America, politics is a far more sterile affair. It’s expected that constituents will respect lawmakers, and it’s expected that lawmakers will work with other lawmakers to pass legislation. “Bipartisanship” and “reaching across the aisle” are hallowed terms. Ideologies are held suspect, disagreements are muted, and anger is considered bad form.
When Rep. Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” during a presidential speech in 2009, Washington’s elite spent weeks in high dudgeon. It was a uniquely American crisis. As one perplexed British commentator noted, “insulting Gordon Brown is practically an obligation.”
It was this regime of courtesies that produced the immigration bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. After the presidential election, with Republicans reeling from low Hispanic support, the media was giddy with anticipation over a compromise on immigration. It mattered little that an immigration bill wasn’t needed, or that Latino voters don’t consider immigration a high priority. Bipartisanship was in the air.
So the usual motions began. The Senate formed a Gang of Eight (only in Congress are compromising cliques called “gangs”), while everyone speculated in hushed tones whether Sen. Marco Rubio, considered on-the-fence on immigration, would join the effort. A bill was hammered out. Amendments were added and subtracted, including one that would have protected same-sex couples under the immigration system. It was withdrawn, naturally, because lawmakers were worried “the coalition would fall apart,” according to Sen. Lindsey Graham.
These are nearly the same circumstances that led to the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, Congress’s failed attempt to control illegal immigration in 1986. The bill was a collaborative effort between Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Democratic Rep. Romano Mazzoli. It was widely hailed as a bipartisan effort; consensus fetishist David Broder praised Simpson-Mazzoli as a “compromise among strong economic and political interests.” The law passed a Democrat House, a Republican Senate, and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Twenty years later, Simpson-Mazzoli was widely regarded as a failure that had granted amnesty to illegal immigrants while doing nothing to control the border. Sen. Chuck Grassley, no panting partisan, admitted in 2007 that he’d been wrong to vote for the act. “I found out…if you reward illegality, you get more of it,” he said. Ditto Sen. Byron Dorgan: “I heard all the promises of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. None of them were true, and three million people got amnesty.”
Immigration isn’t the only issue where niceties are mandated. In 2001, newly elected president George W. Bush decided he wanted to work with Democrats in Congress to do something about education. So backs were slapped and hands were shaken. Sen. Ted Kennedy was invited to the White House for a movie screening. The resulting No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was co-sponsored by Kennedy, and amounted to little more than a consolidation of federal education power. The one initiative that might have ameliorated the plight of inner-city students—school vouchers—was stripped out during negotiations.
Bush signed NCLB into law and everyone patted themselves on the backs. Today it’s regarded as one of the great policy flops of our time. Per the Washington Post: “A review of a decade of evidence demonstrates that NCLB has failed badly both in terms of its own goals and more broadly. It has neither significantly increased academic performance nor significantly reduced achievement gaps, even as measured by standardized exams.”
Yet the bipartisan machine grinds on. The criticism most commonly leveled at Republicans over Obamacare is that they refused to find common ground with Democrats. Sen. Ted Cruz is called a monster for showing a scintilla of condescension when addressing Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The Tea Party is attacked for being inflexible.
It’s all based on the flawed premise that bipartisan is better. Imagine a line with two poles at the end, one labeled “liberal” and the other labeled “conservative.” Simply because a law occupies a median point on the line doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more virtuous—or even remotely effective.
It’s also misleading to measure conservative and liberal principles on this sort of linear scale. Liberals believe that the federal government should tinker with society to make people’s lives better. Conservatives generally don’t think Congress has any business solving such problems. It’s difficult to argue that a federal law draws from both liberal and conservative principles when conservatives oppose federal intervention in the first place.
“Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus,” Christopher Hitchens once said. Today that false security rules Washington. Rather than succumb to it, Republicans should stand pat and swing away. It’s better for government to disagree and do nothing than to come together and pass anything.
So bring on the heckles and let the guffaws sound from the dispatch boxes. Our liberties are safest when politicians are beating each other with olive branches, not when they’re extending them.