Bipartisanship (the bad kind)

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Some news about the presidential debates from Politico, as reported by Dylan Byers:

Philips pulls presidential debate sponsorship

Philips Electronics has dropped its sponsorship of the 2012 presidential debates, citing a desire not to associate itself with bipartisanship, POLITICO has learned.

That lede might cause many readers to do a double-take. If bipartisanship is conventionally understood to mean "cooperation between the two major political parties," why would Philips be opposed to such cooperation? If they don't favor bipartisanship, doesn't that mean they favor partisanship instead? But no: in this case, bipartisanship is actually the equivalent of partisanship, which are both in opposition to nonpartisanship.

The negative (partisan) implication of bipartisanship becomes clear from the rest of the Politico story:

Philips is the third and by far the largest of the original ten sponsors to pull its support, following similar decisions by British advertising firm BBH New York and the YWCA over the last week. Their decision to do so is seen as the result of intense lobbying efforts by advocacy organizations — primarily Libertarian supporters of former Gov. Gary Johnson — who oppose the exclusion of third-party candidates and who therefore believe the Commission on Presidential Debates is an anti-Democratic institution.

Mark A. Stephenson, the head of corporate communications at Philips North America, told POLITICO that the company doesn't want to provide "even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics."

Philips "has a long and proud heritage of being non-partisan in the many countries it serves around the world. While the Commission on Presidential Debates is a non-partisan organization, their work may appear to support bi-partisan politics," Stephenson said in a written statement. "We respect all points of view and, as a result, want to ensure that Philips doesn’t provide even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics. As such, no company funds have been or will be used to support the Commission on Presidential Debates."

So if you're a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson (or a supporter of third-party candidates' rights to participate in debates), then bipartisanship takes on a negative valence, on the partisan end of the partisan/nonpartisan spectrum. Context is everything.

Update, 8:00 pm ET: Politico has already changed the lede to read:

Philips Electronics has dropped its sponsorship of the 2012 presidential debates, citing a desire not to associate itself with "partisan politics," POLITICO has learned.

Before-and-after screenshots:


  1. Lazar said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

    I don't think I've ever seen bipartisan used in an explicitly negative sense like this – in my experience, critiques of the two-party system are likely to use partisan and its derivatives if they're coming from within the system, or duopoly and its derivatives if they're coming from a third-party perspective.

  2. jfruh said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    "…who oppose the exclusion of third-party candidates and who therefore believe the Commission on Presidential Debates is an anti-Democratic institution."

    Surely that should be a small-"d" democratic institutions, as well?

  3. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

    Oddly, when I've seen bipartisanship used negatively, it's been by strong partisans to complain about compromises.

  4. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:17 am

    It's possible the decision came all the way from Eindhoven, and it's also possible someone there mistook "bipartisan" for "two-party". In the European countries that have more than two significant parties, it's quite common to sneer at the supposedly primitive two-party systems such as that in the US.

  5. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:24 am

    I just tried out Google-translating "bipartisan" from English into Dutch – it comes out as "tweepartij". "Two-party system" comes out as "tweepartijenstelsel". So there could easily be some confusion there over the difference between "bipartisan" meaning cooperation between two parties and "two-party" meaning a system in which voters (effectively) only have a choice between two parties.

  6. Andy Averill said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 5:14 am

    I'm a little skeptical of the notion that this has anything to do with the home office in the Netherlands. I would assume that Philips North America normally makes all decisions about where to spend their advertising bucks in the US.

  7. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 6:25 am

    Well alright, but I think your theory involves an opinion-forming role of Libertarians and Greens in the Philips concern, whereas mine just involves a Dutch person having a hand in a decision of a company from the Netherlands ;-)

  8. Mr Punch said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:08 am

    This appears to be Politico's malapropism – "bipartisan," in the American two-party system context, is always the opposite of "partisan."

    [(bgz) Well, no, because as others have pointed out, the "bipartisan" language originated with Philips. Their statement says, "While the Commission on Presidential Debates is a non-partisan organization, their work may appear to support bi-partisan politics." And you can find similar sentiments elsewhere among those supporting third-party candidates.]

  9. CLP said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    "Cooperation between the two major political parties" is an accurate way to describe the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission was created by the major two parties and its leadership is split between people from the two major parties.

  10. Richard said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    Gary Shteyngart's recent novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is set in the future and has the "Bipartisan" party as the dominant party in US politics. Maybe this is the first glimmer of that future.

  11. Acilius said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    Perhaps we need a neutral term. "Bipartisanship" is so much more frequently used as a term of praise for elected officials than in any other context that it is simply confusing to try to use it as a neutral term, as Philips North America found. And "duopoly" is very obviously an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the position the Democratic and Republican Parties hold at the forefront of American politics. It would be as strange to say that one did not want to oppose "duopoly" as it would be to say that one did not want to be associated with "bipartisanship." "The two-party system" works fairly well as a neutral term, but if that isn't punchy enough I would suggest "the Condominium" as a replacement.

  12. mollymooly said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    Somewhat comparably, "Proporz", in Austria's (formerly) two-party system, is a hooray-word that became a boo-word.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    If anything, Philips was trying to use "bipartisan" not as a neutral term but as a pejorative. Interestingly enough, the CPD's website refers to the "nonpartisan criteria" it uses in selecting which candidates are invited to participate. The most onerous-in-practice hurdle is an average of polls indicating 15%+ level of support (although Gov. Johnson would probably still fall short under a materially less demanding test).

  14. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    "Bipartisan" suggests to me the idea that you're part of one party but willing to work with people outside your party. I don't have a strong feeling as to whether it implies that there is one other party, or whether the "other" partisans are everyone who disagrees with you on a particular issue. But I do have a strong feeling that being "bipartisan", like being "partisan", implies taking a position yourself, whereas "nonpartisan" implies not taking a position.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    It seems to me, at least in an American context, that 'bipartisan' is used to mean that those who are partisans are working cooperatively with opposing partisans where 'nonpartisan' refers to person or organization that has no political affiliation.

    I can easily envision using the word to include more than two opposing parties.

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    Ben Hemmens may be onto something, but if so it doesn't apply across all European multi-party democracies. Italian borrowed the English word bipartisan 15 or 20 years ago, and in general it has positive connotations even though it is clearly felt to refer to an "Anglo-Saxon" political order. Of course, post-war history might make the Italians more inclined than the Dutch to see Anglo-Saxon political order in a positive light.

  17. Mark Liberman said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    I've seen something similar with ecumenical, which usually emphasizes cooperation (among Christians) but can be used to signal exclusion (of non-Christians).

  18. Adrian said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 3:06 am

    Google has quite a few examples of "ecumentical" – is it an accepted alternate spelling?

    [(myl) No, it's a typo. Fixed now.]

  19. M (was L) said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    > tweepartij

    The US has several twee parties, not counting the Big Two. ;-)

  20. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

    M (was L),

    Of course, we mustn't ignore the venerable Hug-A-'Twee' party, part of the grassroots "green' coalition movement.

    "Bunch of wacko neo-hippie-back-to-nature dreamers…. those damn misguided 'twee people' ", according to ultra-conservative talk-radio blowhard, Rush Limbaugh.*

    * Presently extracting tongue from cheek, as we 'speak'.

  21. M (was L) said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    @Awex McCwae – It's not just ultwa-consewvative tawk-wadio bwowhawds, heheheheheheheh,

    What's odd in the history of US two-party politics is, it hasn't always been these two parties. There is something structural underlying it, though I'm damned if I know what. Federalists and Ant-Federalists, Whigs and Democratic-Republicans, Democrats and Republicans – they have survived Free Silver, Bull Moose, United We Stand, and the Dems & GOP have even swapped places a few times.

    It's not a language point, and so off-topic, but interesting all the same.

    But off-topic, and so off-limits.

  22. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    M (was L),

    I apologize for clearly being a corrupting influence on you w/ my sometime feeble attempts at levity.

    It's not my intent to lure you off-topic, or into the outer-limits, but I sense you are one of the few bloggers on this site who, on occasion, allows himself to let his hair down, so to speak, and attempts to inject some genuine humor into what can sometimes appear to be an ofttimes, dusty, humorless enterprise.

    I do appreciate your wide erudition on subjects both great and small, (and those topics smack in-between), but I feel a little spritz of wit, on occasion, can go a long way.

    Hmm… I wasn't quite sure you were channeling Barbara Walters, or Elmer Fudd in that last post w/ your rife-with-"w"s opening salvo. It was brilliant, nonetheless, and elicited a hearty chuckle from yours truly, "Awex McCwae".

    On a more serious note, I still can't get my noggin around this Philips Electronics' use of the word "bipartisan" in their official statement re/ pulling of sponsorship funding for the upcoming televised political debates.

    We often hear concerned voters grousing that essentially there is little basic fundamental difference between the two major parities, the Dems and the GOP, in that they are both, of late, hunkered down, and entrenched in their own self-righteous ideological biases, unwilling to cooperate in a traditional bipartisan manner when it comes to moving important new legislation thru Congress, seemingly both ignoring the plight, and hardship facing the average American taxpayer/ voter.

    So I'm thinking that the folks at 'Philips' looked at these pending TV debates as more of the same-old-same-old rhetorical dance of prospective presidential (and VP) candidates, participating in a kind of meaningless Tweedle-dee-Tweedle-dumber exercise of more of the usual obfuscation, beating around the bush, skirting the tough questions, and talking fuzzy math, to the point where neither party really deserves their corporate backing.

    Also there's the notion that the 'Philips' people may be put off by the fact that any viable third-party candidates, be they from the libertarian, independent, or green party camps, essentially have no voice in these debates. Likely because they are viewed as pesky spoilers, w/ the potential to siphon off precious votes that would otherwise go to the two dominant parties. The likes of former third-party general election spoilers as Ralph Nadar and Ross Perot come immediately to mind.

    My heads still spinning over this "bipartisan"/ 'partisan" semantic divide.

    Alas, let the debates begin!

  23. M (was L) said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 10:24 pm

    Well, for some reason the US is so constructed, that it keeps returning to a two-party system. Deviations are short-lived, and the collapse of a party soon resolves into a different two-party pair.

    My gut says that whoever wrote the statement for Philips couldn't find the word duopoly – hardly an everyday word. So they used the word they knew.

    It was Elmer Fudd, in my mind at least. I think I was influenced by the "Duck season/rabbit season" image that I associate so strongly with political debates.

    Technically I'm still using words.

  24. Colin said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 2:01 am

    Off-topic: The US party system seems extremely stable by world standards. As far as I can tell, in the last 150 years we have seen neither the emergence of a new major party, nor any lasting mass defections of politicians. (There have been schisms, such as with the Republicans in 1912 and the Democrats in 1948, but in the end the new party ended up getting reabsorbed into the old one, so very few politicians actually crossed the floor.) Is there anywhere else in the world that comes close to this?

  25. M (was L) said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    There have been mass aisle-crossings – the South moved heavily in the late 60s towards the GOP. There is a sorta-kinda schism in the GOP right now, the "regulars" vs the Tea Party. There have been many third parties that bloomed for an election or sometimes two and fade away.

    At the end of the day, it's two parties – the system seems to be at equilibrium there and whenever pertubed seems to revert to two parties fairly rapidly.

    They have not always been the same two parties, though for 150 years now they have been – at least in name. But they've swapped ideologies a couple of times, and they've swapped constituencies a couple of times, and the Party of Lincoln has often been unrecognizeable as such, and the Democrats have done similarly.

    Before these two parties, there were other pairs of two parties, but it's a little bit like the Sith; there's always two.

    I don't know why this equilibrium point exists, but I suspect it's structural. This has been the case basically since the Constitution went into force in 1789, or arguably 8 years later after G Washington's initial two terms as Prez. ("Formal" parties didn't operate until then, at least not in officially organized form) Thing is, the US of say 1800 was SO different from today, that a phenomenon so constant which is not based in law, is pretty strange. It must be based in something, even if not explicit in law.

    Nothing formal (law, constitution, etc) prevents third parties or new parties, both have happened, but the equilibrium point keeps restoring itself.

    Dunno why, just know it happens that way.

    It would be fascinating to identify another democracy with a long-term stable configuration (two-party or otherwise) because it might shed some light on the question.

    But, I have to admit even as I violate the thing myself, we're way off-topic. There isn't a whole lot of linguistics, in the classical sense, going on this question.

  26. RP said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 8:03 am

    The term "bipartisan" is relatively little used in the UK. Of the OED's four citations, only one refers to UK politics, even though three of the citations are from UK usage (but the other two are UK commentators referring to US politics). The one that refers to UK politics is about foreign policy and is from the 1950s – when the big two parties dominated to an extent never seen subsequently. Googling, most UK uses of the term "bipartisan" nowadays too seem to refer to US politics. The equivalent UK term would be "cross-party", as in "cross-party cooperation" or "cross-party consensus" or "cross-party committee". I can't think of any equivalent offhand to "bipartisanship". I have never heard the term "crosspartisanship" (although there are a small number of google hits for it, including some from House of Commons debates, so it seems to have some limited currency).

    The UK is traditionally regarded as having a two-party system. Since the 1970s that has become increasingly inaccurate. Some refer to a "two-and-a-half party system" – or three-and-a-half in Scotland and Wales. Similarly many Commonwealth countries originally had two-party systems, but in several that I can think of, this has tended to fall apart over time. Australia is the closest to having a two-party system at present, though only if you accept that Liberal and National are a permanent coalition on the national level and can thus be treated as one party for certain purposes (as some pollsters do).

    As to nothing formal preventing new parties in the US, as M (was L) asserted, as far as I can see, this is not entirely accurate. I think it varies from state to state, but in the US it is often a very big hurdle just to get on the ballot in the first place. That is not the case at all in the UK, even for very small parties that have no hope. I would think it obvious that the easier it is to get on the ballot paper in a large number of districts, the more realistic the prospect of a viable third-party challenge taking off.

    There is, of course, inertia, habit, media treatment, etc. But a strong structural reason for the US having a two-party system is its majoritarian (or, properly, pluritarian) voting system – in the UK we have the same system and call it first-past-the-post; in the US political scientists tend to call it simple plurality vote or the like. Countries with FPTP/SPV have a strong tendency towards a two-party system, although the UK shows that this tendency is far from absolute (nevertheless, the two largest parties have 85% of the seats in the Commons, which, even if it looks diverse and multiparty from a US perspective, is hardly so by comparison with most of our European neighbours).

    In FPTP the winning candidate is the one with most votes, even if not winning a majority. Unless you include a run-off, a candidate with 40% (or less) can win an election provided that each of her opponents wins less than 40% of the vote – even if 60% of the electorate detested the winning candidate. So, any third-party entrance to a race creates a spoiler effect. How many Americans would like to vote Green, if only they could do so without increasing Republican chances of winning – or would like to vote Libertarian if they could do so without benefiting the Democrats? How many don't even consider the question because the voting system institutionally makes it barely worthy of consideration?

    Primaries also reduce the pressure for a multiparty system in the US. Few European parties practice primaries. They have candidate selections, but party members have to pay their membership fee to take part.

  27. Acilius said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    @M (was L): I find it very unlikely that Philips was looking for the word "duopoly." For one thing, "duopoly" is as strongly a pejorative when applied to the two-party system as "bipartisanship" is a term of praise when applied to US politicians. So it is hard to imagine that their North American public-relations people would want Philips to release a statement calling the Republicans and Democrats a "duopoly," knowing that such a word might alienate potential customers who value the two-party system. Also, "duopoly" is used as a technical term in bodies of law such as the EU's competition policy and US antitrust regulations. Since those bodies of law apply to Philips, any statement from the company accusing other people of practicing a "duopoly" might well attract the attention, and provoke the discomfort, of the legal department.

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