The bipartisanship cargo cult is a belief system in Washington which attributes the decline of bipartisanship in Washington not to the larger structural changes that actually caused it but to the lack of collegial bipartisan get-togethers. Today the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers a fine example of the genre, devoting his column to mourning the end of the Senate’s “Seersucker Thursday,” which is just what it sounds like. The originator of Seerseeker Thursday is former Senator Trent Lott, and Milbank approvingly cites his argument that the demise of this event is a cause of partisan gridlock:
Our leaders can’t agree on important things because they’re missing this kind of social lubricant. “Some say you don’t want to make it look like the Senate’s being jovial with all these serious things going on,” Lott told me. “My view is you can’t get serious things done because you don’t have events where you can enjoy each other’s company.”
Lott actually is a helpful window into the demise of bipartisanship, but not for the reasons he and Milbank seem to think. The bipartisanship that prevailed through most of the previous century was an artifact resulting from the fact that the Democratic Party contained not only liberals but also right-wing Southern Democrats. Lott supported segregation in college and began his career in Washington as an aide to arch-segregationist Democrat William Colmer. Then Lott ran for Congress in 1972 as a Republican and obtained Colmer’s fulsome endorsement. Bipartisanship!
Of course, Lott had to leave his post as Senate leader after he gave a speech suggesting America would be better off if it had heeded the 1948 candidacy of Strom Thurmond. (Thurmond had bolted the Democratic Party to form the Dixecrats, so I suppose this displays tri-partisanship by Lott.) And now, as a lobbyist, Lott works with both parties because that is how you make money for your clients.
But Seersucker Thursdays did not, even in the slightest and most imperceptible way, arrest the decline of bipartisanship that began when white southern conservatives left the Democratic Party (and northern moderates left the GOP). They could bring back the seersucker suits, and even throw in Madras Mondays and Sombrero Fridays, and persuade members of opposite parties to sit together during the State of the Union address (the latter of which has already happened) and it’s not going to do a whit of good.