Isn’t this like the Yankees vs Mets?

I mean this seriously. The policies they usually “debate” are so obscure and minor in the grand scheme of things that the partisan noise seems irrational. In the past, there were real debates – over currency, slavery, industrialism. Today? Obscure funding issues are turned into “morality” debates.

The parties hardly differ in substance. I was thinking about this after commenting that the substance of both Parties Iraq policy are basically identicle once you strip away the rhetoric. Why is that? They may have different opinions, but reality constrains their options towards the same policy. Their rhetoric is different because they have different constituencies and have to sell that policy.

And for all the partisan noise, you would think Congress was actually divided. No, these policies are usually passed by about 89-2 in the Senate. Half the time, Senators don’t bother to show up for their own “debates.”

There are also a number of political science studies which show the foreign policies of Presidents hardly changes from President to President. Our foreign policy is constrained by foreign governments and our own bureaucracies. Day Dreaming Presidents are forbidden from doing something stupid. Indeed, it looks like our mandarins are running a great many aspects of our government without partisan interference.

Partisanship is like rooting for your favorite baseball team and about as effective.

Every so often, the parties really do differ so they occassionally justify their existence.

Let me offer an example. At the end of the 19th century, the Democrats and Republicans were divided by one critical issue: Currency. It even divided the parties. There was the Pro-Gold faction of Republicans and Democrats, and the Pro-Silver faction of Democrats and Populists. William Jennings Bryan claimed his opponents wanted to crucify us on a cross of Gold. The US dollar was to be fixed to the value of one metal or the other.

Silver inflated faster than Gold, which made it easier for debtors to pay off their debts. Gold though, was much a much sounder basis for a currency over the long term.

The value of currency affected every citizen in the country. The Presidential election of 1896 had one of the highest turnouts in American history. It was widely seen as a referendum on the currency debate. The pro-Gold Republican candidate, McKinley, won and the US Dollar remained on the gold standard.

Where do the Parties stand on the currency issue today? Both parties supported the gold standard until the 1970s. Now both parties support a credit-based money regime.

If you sort through many of the major issues – currency, criminal law, elections, government structure, etc – both parties are in fundamental agreement. They only disagree at the extreme margins of policy debates.

Congress runs a sly game. There are too many affairs and problems to debate publically. Instead, Congressional committees study each issue and make a recommendation. If you look through the committee issues, the vote is unanimous the vast majority of the time. Important laws are negotiated, modified and passed quietly through Congress.

So where does all the partisanship come from? Both parties get a benefit from selecting and otherwise unimportant issue that affects only a small number of Americans at the margin and making it into a partisan weapon. They bicker of obscure funding issues and symbolic “morality” laws. They cannot make headway on these issues, partly because they are so minor and partly because they other side staunchly opposes them.

The impact of these debated policies on all Americans is minimal. I sometimes wonder if the noisy stalemate on trivial issues is intentional. It keeps their base up in arms against their evil and immoral party enemies.

This is not to say that the parties will never differ or there are not more important issues at stake. There are a few serious problems down the pipeline which will truly divide the country as the currency issue did – one will be our Medicare-produced financial crisis.

There seems to be a difference between rational disagreement over policy and rabid partisanship. Partisanship seems like a variant of tribalism.

Could this be part of our instincts? In hunter-gatherer societies, if you lose politically, you starve to death. So you stand together with your tribe and fight hard. It’s easier to attack your opponents if you view them as less than human and assume all their motivations are evil.

Or Bush and Clinton just make people go insane.