We often assume bipartisanship is about making nice. Actually, it's a political and moral necessity.
The challenges of managing a divided government became clear after last fall's midterm election and soon will be clearer still. Concern about the nastiness of our politics multiplied after the awful attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and many politicians pledged to do something about it.
While there's been more talk of bipartisan cooperation in Washington lately, and even two short-term budget agreements, showdowns loom over the debt ceiling and a budget deal for the remainder of the federal fiscal year.
Much of the talk suggests that bipartisanship is just a matter of making nice – more a matter of style than substance. If members of Congress see it that way, it won't have much staying power. In fact, bipartisanship and the civility it requires are a political, and even moral, necessity. Let me explain.
The argument flows from the philosophical foundation of the Republic and its constitutional architecture.
Thomas Jefferson stated the core principles in the Declaration of Independence: We are all created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights. Government exists to protect those rights, and the legitimacy of government – its "just powers" – depends on the consent of the governed.
The Constitution elaborates on these principles, starting with its aspirational Preamble. It requires the consent of the governed be exercised through representative institutions, the essence of a republic (see Federalist 10). It then constrains those institutions with a system of checks and balances (see Federalist 51).
Even as it sets out other powers and responsibilities needed for effective national government, the Constitution makes the exercise of power cumbersome, in order to ensure that it is deliberative. This constitutional scheme itself tends to drive policy to the center. We do not have a parliamentary system in which a party wins a majority of seats and is entitled to govern. In our system, the necessity for compromise springs from our constitutional DNA.