It’s Us

January 21st, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of the expedients of Party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions & aims of other Districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies & heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render Alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal Affection. — Washington Farewell Address

The spin machines are in overdrive casting blame for the shutdown on the “other side.” The other morning I was listening to NPR and representatives from “both sides” were interviewed to explain the shutdown. One was a representative from the White House, the other was a Democratic Congressman. Both of them tried to make their best case, and both were articulate, but it was also evident that both were repeating canned talking points, no doubt crafted by political marketers on each side. What I found to be interesting was that my emotional response to the one representing the “side” I mostly agree with was favorable, but unfavorable to the other. In other words, when presented with two coherent arguments, I essentially automatically agreed with what I already agreed with and was unmoved by what I didn’t. You might say that one argument presented the “facts” in a better way, but even so, I know there are others like me but who favor the other “side” who reacted in a similar fashion. They are no more likely to be convinced by articulate presentation of opposing evidence than I am.

What this suggests is that as a nation we have divided ourselves, or have been divided, into opposing tribal groups, much like how people from neighboring countries can be formed into opposing nationalist armies. In this scenario, it is imperative for those benefiting from conflict to keep the two “sides” divided, focused on the rightness of their own cause and diverted from recognizing the point of view of the other. Of course, there are cases where one side is clearly morally wrong and the other clearly right, as in the case of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Still, in these cases the leaders of the criminal states were able to instill in the populace a rabid nationalist fervor that drove them to support barbaric policies that were plainly not in their or anyone else’s interest. Hitler was able to convince millions of otherwise humane Germans that exterminating Jews and enslaving untermenschen (Poles, Slavs) was a capital idea. At its most extreme, partisanship is a dehumanizing condition – it steals the humanity of the “enemy” so that they can by reviled and even eliminated by otherwise compassionate people.

The two-party system is so enmeshed in American political life that it seems almost inevitable. And historians who study the development of the two-party system will note that it began in the very first Presidential administration. But the bitterness and disarray resulting from a constant clash of vision between his two closest lieutenants: Hamilton and Jefferson, inspired Washington, near the end of his second term as President, to warn against what were then called factions. Thus the quote at the top of this writing. In essence, Washington believed, from his own experience, that factionalism would cause partisans to place the interests of their factions ahead of their common interests as Americans, dividing and weakening the Republic. His fears were abundantly confirmed by the Civil War, which though not driven by political parties, was a clear case of partisans placing the interests of their faction above the interests of the nation.

Partisanship has not always led to bloodshed, but it remains destructive to national unity. The present case of the government shutdown, and the two very different explanations for it, (of which we are all called to choose one or the other), provides clear proof.

The truth is, the issues upon which the two sides disagree do not divide most people. Most Americans support funding children’s health care, finding a humane way to protect immigrants brought to the United States when they were children, funding and strengthening the military, and defending the borders. I think, really, that most members of Congress support these things. So why is it so difficult to come to consensus?

The answer lies in our electoral system. Candidates for office are chosen in Caucuses and Primary elections, and then voted upon in the General election. Most Americans remain uninterested in the earlier elections because they think the only elections that count are the General elections. It’s like not paying attention to baseball until the World Series. But the two teams that compete in the Word Series were selected in a number of individual games that at the time may have seemed individually unimportant. As anyone from a team that misses the playoffs will tell you, each game is important.

As is each election. The truth is that only the most partisan voters participate in the process of choosing the candidates who appear on the General election ballot. In the 2016 election only 9% of eligible voters chose both Trump and Clinton as the candidates. Voters commonly complain about the dismal choices they are forced to choose from, but at the same time most of them didn’t vote in the elections to choose the candidates. Who did vote were the most extreme partisans on each side. The constitutional system depends upon the participation of eligible voters. Those who don’t vote forfeit their decision making powers to those who do.

The President’s approval has hovered around 35%, and disapproval around 55%, since his inauguration. Most people are opposed to the way the President is leading the country. His base is approximately 1/3 of the electorate, a clear minority. But that minority is extremely dedicated to his proffered vision of what makes America “great.” The Donald’s behavior in office has shattered any sense of normality and shocked and dismayed most Americans (as evidenced by the consistent disapproval ratings) as well as alarming our allies and emboldening our foes. But he has been diligent about keeping his base delighted, and that is where his strength lies.

Because even if a Congressman strongly disagrees with the President’s buffoonery, they know that if they represent a district where even a minority of voters support the President, that minority could make up a majority of Primary election voters. The American constitutional system was devised in a way that is supposed to simultaneously reflect the will of the majority while protecting the minority. But because of voter apathy, the nation is being held hostage by a minority that thinks a great America is a dog eat dog, me first jungle where everyone is out for themselves and screw everyone else. And for them, and for those who represent them, their own interests are partisan, not national. Welcome to the Wild West.

We have no one to blame but ourselves. If you don’t like it, if you think we ought to be better represented by leaders who place country before party, you have to vote.

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