• Matthew Green

Bipartisanship should not be an end in itself


American politics today is highly polarized. Many fear that this heightened polarization and worsening partisan conflict creates governmental gridlock, reduces people’s tolerance for opposing political views, erodes elected officials’ commitment to democratic norms, and could even lead to another civil war.


Whether for these reasons, or because they worry that their own reelection will be at risk, Democratic moderates in Congress have resisted passing major legislation with Democrats’ votes alone. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has insisted that any federal voting rights bill must be supported by both parties, and he later came out against making a “carve out” for the Senate filibuster in order to pass a major voting rights measure by a simple majority. So too did Senator Kirsten Sinema (D-AZ), who recently said that doing so would “worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.”


Democrats quickly pushed back against Manchin and Sinema. House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) pointed out that good ideas are often endorsed by just one political party. In particular, he noted that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted African Americans the right to vote, was originally supported by Republicans in Congress and strongly opposed by Democrats.


Not only can good policy pass with highly partisan votes, but the inverse is also true: bipartisan support for a legislative proposal does not necessarily mean that that proposal is necessarily beneficial. Indeed, there are examples in our nation’s past where both Republicans and Democrats in Congress reached bipartisan accord on matters which led to flawed policy, or worse.


One lesser known but important instance from congressional history, also related to voting rights, involved contested elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. These were elections in which the defeated candidate appealed the outcome to the House, hoping that it would award them the seat instead.


Contested House elections are rare today, but they were a regular feature of the American political landscape in the latter half of the 19th century. The political scientist Nelson Polsby argued that contested elections were frequent back then because members of Congress encouraged them: they hoped to expand their majorities by giving seats to sore election losers from their own party. By 1900, according to Polsby, the House had begun following politically neutral rules for determining who was elected to Congress, whereupon contested elections virtually disappeared.


Unfortunately, Polsby had failed to look at why these congressional elections were being contested in the first place. When I conducted a closer analysis of them, I found that the majority were elections to House seats in the South, and many of those were marked by the use of fraud, intimidation, and sometimes even murder by White Democrats to keep Blacks from voting for Republican candidates. While Republicans who lost these elections hoped to appeal to fellow partisans in the House on the basis of party loyalty (provided Republicans had a majority in the chamber), they also had solid grounds to contest the results.


Contested elections did not go away because the House adopted a more neutral evaluation process. Rather, southern states started adopting new constitutions and voting laws that imposed enormous barriers for African Americans who wanted to vote. They eliminated the need for the use of violence and fraud to get Democrats elected, making it harder for losing GOP candidates to prove that foul play had robbed them of victory.


There was another reason that contested elections declined: a pivotal faction of House Republicans began voting with Democrats in the 1890s to dismiss these contested election cases. Some wanted to seat the Republican candidate but felt helpless to do so without clearer evidence of election theft. Others, like Republican Congressman John Jenkins of Wisconsin, actually praised voting conditions in the South. Indeed, Jenkins called for more restrictions on voting rights because, he said, “there is danger in allowing the ignorant to vote.” He was hardly the only Republican who felt that way.


The South got the message. Black disfranchisement spread throughout the region, and very few Republican House candidates bothered to challenge their inevitable losses. Both parties in Congress had come to accept – and, together with the Supreme Court, help institutionalize – White supremacy in southern elections.


Though there are some disturbing parallels, the situation we are in today is not the same as it was in the late 1800s. By no means am I suggesting that Senators Manchin or Sinema share the racist views of lawmakers like Jenkins, or that the GOP is trying to impose White-only elections as the Democratic Party once did. But the fate of southern Blacks in the latter half of the 19th century is a stark reminder that bipartisanship should not be an end in itself. Sometimes, when members of both parties come together, the result can be deeply damaging.

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