A return to bipartisan decision making could make our political situation worse because history shows bipartisanship is bad for America.
Notably, our history is full of bipartisan solutions and compromises that made things worse. Slavery, the Civil War, Segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, the Vietnam War, and the Second Gulf War are among the past catastrophes bipartisanship brought America.
Past bipartisan solutions institutionalized slavery and racism, stripped African Americans of their rights, and led to war. Some examples of the destructive nature of bipartisanship include:
Slavery in the US Constitution
When they wrote the Constitution in 1787 the Founding Fathers probably made the Civil War inevitable with a bipartisan compromise on slavery.
First, the Constitution protected slavery by giving states the right to extradite escaped slaves from the free states. Second, the Constitution gave slavery a legal status and institutionalized racism by counting slaves as three-fifths of a human being. Third, the Constitution gave Congress the right to ban the importation of new slaves after 1808.
To clarify, the Founders preserved the Union by refusing to deal with the issue of slavery. They feared Southern states would not sign the Constitution; and remain in the United States, unless slavery was allowed.
Within 20 years; however, the cotton gin; and Britain’s insatiable demand for cotton, made slavery more profitable than ever. In fact, economic and technological progress increased the demand for slaves.
The new factories of the Industrial Revolution needed vast amounts of cotton. The cotton gin made it easy to process vast amounts of cotton that could be cheaply exported to England.
Meanwhile, slavery was the only means of supplying the cheap labor that made large-scale cotton farming profitable in the United States. Small family farms using free labor could have supplied the cotton; but that solution could undermine the political and economic power of Southern Planters.
Thus, slavery became the dominant economic and institution in the South. Moreover, the preservation and expansion of slavery became the only political agenda in the South, and in Congress.
During the 74 years between the Constitutional Convention and the Civil War, slavery expanded and slave owners grew rich. By 1857 the Southern Slave Power was the most powerful political and economic force in America. Consequently, the nation was hopelessly divided.
The Constitutional Compromise is classic bipartisanship because some Founders; such as George Washington, sacrificed their ideals to save the nation. Washington, for instance, refused to speak out against slavery but freed his slaves in his will; a radical act at the time of his death in 1799. In the long run, the founders’ sacrifice nearly destroyed both the nation and its ideals.
The Missouri Compromise
President Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) made conflict over slavery inevitable with his Louisiana Purchase in 1803. To clarify, Jefferson purchased most of the Mississippi watershed (about half of the modern United States) from Napoleon.
Breakneck settlement in the new territories created dozens of new states. This led to a crisis in 1819 when Missouri tried to enter the Union as a slave state. Northerners opposed Missouri’s admission, because the number of slave states would exceed the number of free states.
Furthermore, Missouri’s admission would abrogate one of the compromises the Founders worked out in 1787. The Founding Fathers created the US Senate and gave each state two Senators, so every state would have equal representation in one house regardless of population.
As long as the number of slave and free states remained the same, they had equal power in the Senate. Unequal numbers of slave or free states could theoretically give one side domination of the Federal government.
Additionally, Missouri’s admission could abrogate Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinances; which banned slavery from states north of the Ohio River in the Mid West. Missouri’s northern border is north of the Ohio. The fear was that allowing Missouri into the Union could allow slavery to expand into the North where it was illegal.
Under the Missouri Compromise, two new states; Maine; formerly a part of Massachusetts, and Missouri joined the union. This preserved the balance of power in the Senate. Furthermore, the Compromise banned slavery above the 36th Parallel west of Missouri. This preserved the Northwest Ordinance and allowed the nation’s political leaders to ignore the issue of slavery for over a generation.
Like the Constitutional Compromise, the Missouri Compromise only delayed the inevitable. Conversely, the Compromise probably made the situation worse by allowing slavery’s expansion into new states like Arkansas.
Additionally, most of the territory West of the Mississippi was either technically in Mexico, or inhospitable to cotton production. Thus, the Compromise of 1820 was largely meaningless symbolism.
However, many Southerners hated the Missouri Compromise because it assumed Congress had the power to regulate slavery. Thus, Congress theoretically had the power to ban slavery – which frightened slave owners.
The Missouri Compromise was total bipartisanship because both Northern and Southern leaders accepted it. Nobody, however, bothered to ask the voters if they wanted a compromise on slavery. An action that hid the problem, but did not solve it.
The Compromise of 1850
President James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) blew the Missouri Compromise apart with two actions. First, Polk brought Texas into the Union as a slave state. Second, Polk conquered vast amounts of new territory by winning the Mexican War.
Conflict began when Northerners poured into California during the Gold Rush. In 1849, California asked to enter the Union as a free state. President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana); ironically a slave-owning Southerner, made things worse by agreeing to California’s demand. In addition, Taylor wanted Oregon, Utah, and New Mexico to enter the Union as free states.
Thus, Taylor killed the Missouri Compromise by trying to create four new free states, and banning slavery far below the 36th Parallel. The Compromise frightened Southerners because it looked as if they were about to lose their political power. If Taylor’s compromise had succeeded, Southerners would have lost control of the US Senate in 1850.
In 1850, after Taylor’s death, the U.S. Senate tried to settle the conflict with the Compromise of 1850. The 1850 Compromise was the height of bipartisanship because it was the work of Whig Leaders US Senators Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts) and Henry Clay (W-Kentucky) and Democrat US Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois). Effectively both Whig and Democrat leaders ignored popular opinion to write a compromise designed to appease the other side’s leaders and nothing else.
The Compromise of 1850 was actually a set of five compromises that settled nothing. First, they did not admit Utah and New Mexico to the Union; which limited the number of free states. Second, Texas gave up its claims to Western territories; in exchange for admission to the Union.
Third, Congress banned the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Fourth Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Act making it easier to capture and return escaped runaway slaves. Fifth, Congress adopted the principle of popular sovereignty; which allowed territories to decide whether they wanted to be slave or free.
The Compromise of 1850 collapsed almost as soon as it became public. The Fugitive Slave Act radicalized and emboldened the abolitionist movement and encouraged violent resistance to slavery. Many Northern Whigs walked out of their party as soon as they heard about the Compromise. Moreover, popular sovereignty led to guerrilla warfare between pro-slavery and abolitionist fanatics in bleeding Kansas.
Finally, both Southerners and Northerners felt betrayed by the Compromise and started distrusting their leaders. Distrust of the leadership became rampant, and many Southerners began discussing succession.
One casualty of the Compromise was the Whig Party, which contained both slave owners and opponents of slavery. Many Northern Whigs feeling betrayed by their leaders left and joined the anti-slavery Republicans.
Strangely, Northern Free-Soil Democrats; who also felt betrayed by their leaders, joined the former Whigs. Both groups turned to the Republican Party which had one agenda: destroy the Slave Power.
By 1860, the Republicans were America’s dominant political party, winning control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Frightened Southerners fled Washington; and succeeded, from the Union rather than accept Republican government. The Compromise designed to “save slavery” made its destruction inevitable by sowing the seeds of Civil War.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was moderate U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) bipartisan solution to the crisis made worse by the Compromise of 1850. Once again, Douglas and other moderates tried to ignore the growing crisis by hiding it behind a bipartisanship solution.
Essentially, the Kansas-Nebraska Act formalized the Compromise of 1850 by making popular sovereignty federal law. Under the acts, settlers in Nebraska and Kansas could vote to allow slavery.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 prompted large migrations of pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers into Kansas. Instead, of a peaceful election the two sides waged war. Soon radical abolitionists led by the revolutionary John Brown and pro-Southern mercenaries were shooting it out in Kansas.
The violence the Kansas-Nebraska Act prompted became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” and is viewed as a prelude to the Civil War. Meanwhile, Douglas went from a popular leader; and future president, to one of the most hated men in the country.
Seven years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Confederate States succeeded from the Union triggering the Civil War. By then, bipartisanship was dead, with Southerners leaving the Union rather than accepting a moderate ex-Whig; Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois), as president.
By the Spring of 1861, the former moderate Douglas was encouraging his friend Lincoln to raise a powerful army of several hundred thousand men to crush the Slave Power. Even the nation’s greatest bipartisan had lost faith in compromise.
The Compromise of 1877
In 1877, 12 years after the Civil War, another Constitutional Crisis in United States nearly triggered a second Civil War.
For the second time, the presidential candidate who won the popular vote; Samuel B. Tilden (D-New York), did not win the Electoral College. Instead, the nation had two men who could claim to be president; Tilden, and Electoral College winner Rutherford B. Hayes (R-Ohio).
Party leaders ended the crisis by making what is probably the sleaziest deal in American political history. Republicans agreed not to enforce federal civil rights laws; or interfere in Southern states to protect the rights of African Americans, in exchange for the Democrats’ accepting Hayes’ election.
The practical result was that African Americans lost their rights and became second-class citizens for nearly 90 years. The Democrats quickly legalized segregation with Jim Crow Laws in the South and purged blacks from public office and the voting rolls.
Once deprived of political power, African Americans had no protection or influence. Within 20 years lynching; the murder of African Americans by racist mobs, was an acceptable activity in the United States. By 1903 there were no blacks in Congress.
The Compromise of 1877 was pure bipartisanship because a committee of seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent created it. One result of the Compromise of 1877 was widespread distrust of government. Notably, Hayes became known by the nickname “Rutherfraud B. Hayes.”
Notably, the popularity of radical anti-establishment third parties; including the Populists, the Greenbacks, the Bull Moose Party, and the Socialists, marked the next 40 years. Instead, of peace, the Compromise of 1877 sparked decades of political turmoil and class warfare.
Over the next few decades, even reforming Presidents like Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) adopted racist policies and refused to stop lynching. FDR, for instance, refused to do anything about lynching even at the height of World War II.
The Compromise of 1877 is the purest example of bipartisanship in our history. Sadly, it was far from the last.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution
The height of bipartisanship in American history was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.
To explain in August 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas) asked Congress for permission to use American military forces in the Vietnam War. Johnson’s pretext was accusations of attacks on US Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin by Communist North Vietnamese forces.
Congress obliged Johnson, or LBJ, with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of military force. Bipartisanship reigned supreme as the House of Representatives passed the resolution unanimously and only two Senators opposed it. The leadership of both parties supported Johnson’s action as necessary to contain Communism.
The resolution marked the beginning of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. It was also stupid because there was probably no attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Instead, the destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy probably fired at empty water because of errors by radar operators.This information was readily available but Congress refused to ask the naval officers on the scene for it.
Moreover, Johnson lied to Congressional leaders by falsely saying he would ask Congress’s permission to launch a full-scale war in Vietnam. After his reelection in November 1964, Johnson escalated the war without asking Congress. Congress gave LBJ unlimited authority and endorsed his actions by refusing to question the Tonkin Gulf Incident, or the rationale for involvement in Vietnam.
Thus, Congress’s bipartisan leaders made a bloody and unnecessary war inevitable by refusing to question the President’s actions or motives. Ultimately, history showed the Vietnam War was bloody; over 60,000 American deaths, and unnecessary. Communism collapsed and America won the Cold War despite the Communist victory in Vietnam in 1975.
Like the compromises of 1850 and 1877, the Vietnam War led to widespread distrust of government and political leaders. An early casualty of the conflict was LBJ himself who dropped out of the 1968 presidential election to avoid a humiliating primary defeat.
The Tonkin Gulf Relationship is textbook bipartisanship because the so-called opposition; the Republicans, refused to challenge LBJ’s contentions. Thus the Republicans endorsed the Vietnam War and made it inevitable.
One result of the Republican cowardice in 1964, was that LBJ’s Republican successor Richard M. Nixon (R-California) found it almost impossible to pull out of Vietnam. Even though Nixon himself believed the war was a waste of time as early as 1966.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution proves how bipartisanship destroys common sense and overcomes rational decision making. One reason why bipartisanship is so destructive is that it involves both parties in the crimes or lies of one. Thus, leaders on both sides of the aisle have a vested interested in continuing the lies and ignoring or crushing dissenters.
The Second Iraq War
Sadly, 28 years after the Gulf of Tonkin debacle, another generation of bipartisan leaders made a similar mistake.
Like LBJ President George W. Bush (R-Texas) was plotting American involvement in another destructive ground war (Iraq) with equally dubious claims. In particular, Bush, falsely claimed Iraq possessed chemical, nuclear and other “weapons of mass destruction.”
In reality, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had cooperated fully with the United Nations by destroying all of his chemical weapons, The Intercept notes. Moreover, Vox’s Dylan Matthews writes; “the Bush administration on numerous occasions exaggerated or outright fabricated conclusions from intelligence in its public statements.”
However on 3 October 2003, Congress gave Bush authorization to attack Iraq at his discussion. Notably, a majority of Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate voted for the resolutions, CBS reports. Specifically, 21 Democrats, and one Republican opposed the resolution in the U.S. Senate.
The Iraq Body Count website estimates 288,000 people died because of the second Iraq War and its aftermath as of 10 July 2019. Once again, the “success” of bipartisanship is written in blood.
History shows that moderates who dream of bipartisan leadership had better be careful what they wish for. Past “bipartisan successes” led to nothing but death and destruction.