Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Stop Making Sense:" The (De)meaning of Partisanship

Partisan:  a word which comes to English from the Lombard dialects and Tuscan in two slightly different forms, "partezan" and "partigiano" via the Latin pars, partem, or part.  It first means the member of a faction, which takes on a different sense than it has for us when one considers that the same word, in  16th-17th c French, referred to a pike-like weapon on a shaft.   By the late 17th c it means something like our guerilla fighter, then (re-?)acquires a political sense in the 19th c (Source:  The word morphs back into warfare in World War II as the name for the Italian fighters of the Resistance, and to politics again, as all of us know who have paid any attention this summer.  Faction, in Renaissance texts, always implies deceit, and a grave risk to social order.  In other words, partisanship amounts to warfare, with or without lethal weapons.

One could hardly miss the presence of partisanship in the House Chamber when President Obama delivered his address on health care tonight.  I could hardly deny it in myself.  The partial government option he offered will disappoint many on the left, but since it addresses me I feel quite happy with it.  The Republican congressmen (yes, men) waving copies of a bill they'd written that apparently either didn't clear committee or gain consideration gave particularly childish evidence of partisanship in the hall.  

The grim demeanors of Lindsey Graham as he rubbed his hands in tension and John Boehner as he wore his perpetual scowl--except when Obama endorsed the Republican idea of malpractice reform, at which the Republican senators looked like fans (from the word fanatic...) at a football game when their team has finally scored deep into the fourth quarter, finally giving them something to cheer--suggested an odd combination of anxiety, pugnacity, and, yes, partisanship.  

Let's not leave out the Democrats.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have forgotten her pompoms, but she hardly need them, seeming to beat everyone except perhaps her former colleague from New York Chuck Schumer to their feet when the president made a particularly powerful point.  Interestingly, at one point he just kept going through the cheers with a stinging series of assertions.  

As for Obama, for all his genuine overtures to the other side, including adopting an idea of John McCain's, the stakes of this speech came through most clearly at two junctures.  One can imagine Mitch McConnell taking umbrage when the president announced that the time for playing games is over, but it struck just the right note of a president who has tolerated about as much as he intends to tolerate.  I found it telling that well into the speech, at a pitched moment, he used a phrase familiar to all of his who voted for him last year:  "not this time, not now."  I watched for its reappearance, but it didn't come.

The signature moment for partisanship--why can't we just talk about the tribute to Ted Kennedy?--came when a lone Republican Congressman tried to call Obama a liar until Democrats drowned him out with boos.  It provided the lowest point of the evening, the clearest evidence that the extremism of the summer is disturbingly alive and well.

It also reminds us of the true threat of partisanship.  We all have the right to urge our cases, but what exactly do we mean when we say we will fight for our beliefs?  Partisanship is now, as it always has been, an expression of group loyalties.  It also represents the opposite of civility and, to a degree, citizenship, when it places the views of the few over and against those of the many.  Exactly what I did when I applauded the truncated version of the public option, not to mention when I wanted to scream at the set as the Republican response began.  

Obama used the phrase "disagree without being disagreeable" in his stump speech last year.  It speaks to the importance of civility, to listening.  Not to screaming, or waving unconsidered bills in the air, or lying to older people about death panels and Medicare.  Civility--as I get older, I respect it more and more.  It stands in tension with partisanship, but ought not be fundamentally incompatible with it.  We'll see how many Republicans want to let Obama make sense and give us what we all--not just what I, or you--need from health care reform.

1 comment:

  1. Peter, I appreciated your words and your attentive eye. I started watching the speech as the Kennedy Letter was being revealed and that is my primary memory. I like how you were attentive to what was not said as well. That is just as important.

    I am in a place right now where i believe it is time to move to other public arts than speechmaking to get the point across. I am tired of the speechmaking, even from people like President Obama who I admire. I think change is going to happen some other way than a joint session of Congress.

    We are all so conflicted about our bodies, our health and how we care for both. This issue of health care is about partisanship and it is also about the deep struggle of being mortal...of being overweight, of chemotherapy treatments, of simple aches and pains.
    The Health Care debate opens Pandora's Box which happens to be inhabited by our deepest fears.