05/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Elites Rule, Not You: When Bipartisanship Becomes Undemocratic

At what point does "bipartisanship" begin to erode the democratic process?

Here's my answer: When it's used to take decision-making power away from voters and place it in the hands of a governing elite - an elite which acts in secret so that its members cannot be held accountable to anyone for their actions.

Democrats traded away some of the most critical elements of health reform for bipartisan comity that never appeared - and yet didn't bring those elements back when the other side of the aisle rebuffed them. Now they appear to be doing the same thing with financial reform.

I'd like to know if my two Senators are in favor of a strong and independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency or not. That will help me decide whether to support their re-election. Yet if Senators Dodd and Corker have their way, I'll never get to find out. They'll work out their deal in private, either with the tacit support of the Administration and the Senate leadership or not (I won't know that either), and voters like me will never know where their Senators stood on this important issue.

Did you know that under Dodd/Corker it would be hard for individual states to enforce stronger consumer protection rules those set by the Federal government? One reason you might not know is that there's been no public debate of the Dodd/Corker compromise. "Bipartisanship" sometimes means keeping the public in the dark.

Here's how democracy's supposed to work: One politician stands for a certain set of ideas and values. Her or his opponent stands for others. We, the electorate, choose between them. But apparently this model of governance is considered too inefficient and messy in some circles. The current "bipartisanship" vogue would end the interference of all those meddlesome middlemen - the voters, that is.

In the New Bipartisan Order Washington elites get to decide what will be debated publicly and what will be decided privately. Any ideas that might require politicians to take controversial positions are hashed out behind closed doors and then presented as a "bipartisan" solution (after, of course, having been ritually blessed by David Broder and other cheerleaders).

It's time to give the proper label to this new, fetishized version of bipartisanship: It's an ideology. It's a new philosophy of governance that challenges our current system. Not so coincidentally, it also serves the interests of those promoting it, strengthening those currently in power and weakening the influence of voters and political outsiders.

It has other advantages for its advocates, too: Politicians can adopt a Good Cop/Bad Cop approach, for example, even when they hold a decisive majority. "Sure, pal, I'd give you a private option and a strong CFPA, but my partner here won't let me."

Do I have any hard evidence that's what has happened with financial reform? Of course not. I can't know anything about my politicians or their motivations under this system. That's the point. I don't even get to learn whether they'd vote for the policies I support.

Don't get me wrong: Compromise has its place. It's how legislation gets passed. We don't need to repeat the cliche about how "laws and sausage get made" any more. But in an ideal system compromise takes place after the votes have been counted. That's why it makes sense to put the ideas like the CFPA or the public option to an up-or-down vote. That forces politicians to declare their positions in public. If those measures fail, then it's time for some horse-trading - but out in the sunshine, where people can see it.

Instead we're being presented with faits accompli written in secret chambers, and we're supposed to celebrate the "bipartisan" manner in which they were designed. It's like being ruled by Plato's Guardians - except that these Guardians have been chosen for their wealth and salesmanship, not for wisdom and selflessness. And remember: Plato's Republic was not a democracy.

Take that recent rash of pro-Rahm Emanuel stories. Whether they're true or not, the "virtues" they perceive in the Chief of Staff aren't democratic in nature. Consider this embarrassing genuflection from Dana Milbank:

"Obama's greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care. Early on, Emanuel argued for a smaller bill with popular items, such as expanding health coverage for children and young adults, that could win some Republican support. He opposed the public option as a needless distraction."

The American people support the public option by a wide margin. But in Milbank's world - the world of Washington's elites - allowing voters to learn where their representatives stand isn't important. It's better to have a "smaller bill" (i.e., one that does less to fix this critical problem) as long as it has "popular items." And in Milbank's world "popular" doesn't mean popular with voters - like the public option - but popular with the elites (including the party that the electorate just overwhelmingly rejected.)

Some democracy.

Now Barney Frank is saying that the Dodd compromise is a "bad joke." He's speaking for a great many voters, and the residents of his district will know where he stands. Apparently he hasn't gotten the memo: These matters are supposed to be decided in private by the elite, not argued in public where the hoi polloi might overhear.

Don't get me wrong. Elites have their place, too - when they're meritocratic elites. The Olympics are the ultimate elitist event, and we saw a lot of very impressive people there. People should excel at what they do in order to win positions of leadership. But in a democracy, the people decide who leads and who doesn't. They have the right to know where their elected officials stand so they can decide accordingly. The elites don't get to choose their own membership ... or at least they shouldn't.

Bipartisanship ends where a voter's right to choose begins.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer, is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project. Richard blogs at: