by Donna Brazile
In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned us about the excesses of political parties. He said: Political parties ... serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party.”
He added, “(Parties) are likely in the course of time and things ... to subvert the power of the people ... and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Washington did not foresee the modern campaign tools that parties use to push Americans to partisan extremes. He did not foresee the technological revolution, the predominance of cable chatter, the creation of super PACs, and the enormous role of special interests — and that, as a result, the people themselves are driving partisanship. We know this thanks to Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that does extensive polling and research on issues of importance to the public.
Pew Research’s most recent findings on our partisan divisions are both shocking, and to some extent, comforting. Here’s the good news: “The majority (of Americans) do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views,” Pew tells us. “Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.”
And the not-so-good news: “(Partisan) ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”
Political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who developed an objective scale to measure partisan leanings, find “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction (following the Civil War).”
Pew summed it up this way: “The more you love politics, the more you hate the other side.” Because the partisans are more vocal, and more involved in every step of the political process, the middle feels frustrated and disengaged from politics, allowing the partisans to become more intolerant, as they drive the discourse of national life.
In the daily emails I receive, and in my Twitter feed, I see how much partisan animosity has grown. The more a party aligns itself with a rigid ideology, the more the dislike and distrust of the “other” people. We have, rightfully, held gerrymandering responsible. We have, rightfully, held responsible the personal attacks and smear campaigns that portray the other party’s candidates as not just always wrong, but corrupt, depraved or even un-American.
Gerrymandering cannot be solved by simply drawing geographic lines more equitably. That’s become almost impossible, as more and more people live only among those who share their politics. Increasingly, Americans are grouping geographically by politics.
In what Pew calls, “stereotypes come to life,” rigid (or “consistent”) conservatives prefer the rural life and to live among people of the same religious faith, while rigid (or “consistent”) liberals prefer the cities and greater diversity in everything. Both are becoming more distrustful of the other.
This goes way beyond red or blue.
We have entered a vicious cycle: Vocal partisans drive our national politics, preferring a gridlocked Congress to a Congress that compromises and finds solutions. As a result, more and more Americans sort themselves out by a political theology, choosing to live in geographic enclaves where it is heretical to question that theology, which reinforces vocal partisanship.
Here are a few of the overall findings: 1. The number of Americans who are rigidly conservative or liberal has doubled in the last two decades. 2. Differences go beyond politics, affecting the daily life of where and among whom people live. 3. The political “center” has shrunk. More and more people, including independents, hold partisan viewpoints. 4. Increasingly, those in the expanding opposite poles of each party say, “compromise now means they get more of what they want.”
Pew decided it had to abandon the red and blue values that have sorted American’s politically: “The political landscape includes a center that is large and diverse, unified by frustration with politics and little else.” And they have every right to be frustrated.
Now, I don’t have a solution. Citizens who want a more moderate middle, a Congress that compromises, a greater nonpartisan approach on Capitol Hill, need to gather quickly and work out solutions. They need to hold town hall meetings this fall before going back to the polls to cast their ballots.
On this 238th Birthday of our nation, let me conclude with a warning sounded by Abraham Lincoln, who held our nation together during the greatest threat to its unity:
“(Danger) cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
It’s time the free men and women come together to help chart a better course for our nation. We are still a young nation.
This shouldn’t be hard.