For most of our history, our political system reflected the importance of bipartisanship to find common ground on legislative issues. This value was based on the understanding that the Constitution’s guarantees of individual rights was intended to protect the minority from tyranny by the majority.
For the Founding Fathers, common ground was essential to building the foundation of our government. The Founders and the colonists were motivated by England’s abuse of their rights as free men which became the catalyst for articulating “self-evident” principles. The prevailing philosophy for governing was best articulated by Henry Clay’s perspective that has been discarded in recent decades. He said, “Politics is not about ideological purity, or moral self-righteousness, it’s about governing. If you cannot compromise you cannot govern.”
Although the political extremes of the left and right represent a minority of the public, they are disproportionately active and this has led to the polarization, that is an obstacle to progress. Polarization is reinforced by identity politics, which increasingly involves people acting on a preference for associating with people who share their views and for sources of information that reinforce those views. They live in an echo chamber that produces black and white views and an intolerance for those who do not share them. The current political system rewards those who pursue conflict and demonization, and punishes those who show a willingness to compromise. People respond to incentives and the prevailing incentives are misaligned with the Clay’s principle of governing.
Several decades ago (some say in the mid 1990’s), bipartisanship and the search for common ground were replaced by the forces of polarization. While this is seen in the inability of Congress to do the people’s business, Congressional dysfunction is the result, not the cause, of the polarization that is rampant in society. As a society, we have become “Balkanized” and intolerant, with too many seeing only black or white with few if any shades of gray. As a result, many of those who are sent to Congress reflect the ideological purity of the voters who elected them. Ironically, the loss of bipartisanship and the collegiality needed to find common ground has led to the loss of trust in Congress.
If we want Congress to function better, we need to have representatives who do not view compromise as a character flaw, and who are more interested in solving problems than in scoring political points. We will only get them when voters look in the mirror and realize that, as the cartoon character Pogo observed, “we have met the enemy and it is us”.
Too many in society have become less tolerant, less accepting, more judgmental, and single-issue voters. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah recently wrote that we need a Geneva Convention for the culture war…“we need a detente in partisan hostilities, an easing of tensions that can be realized when both side adopt certain rules of engagement”. He’s wrong; what we need are not rules to govern incivility—we need a restoration of the principles of civility and good citizenship. We also need to recognize that the actions of a minority are infectious and are spreading. The antidote starts with us; not in the halls of Congress. The majority needs to be a counterforce to the radical, political activists on the right and left who engage in demonization, intolerance, and scapegoating.
Character matters, and character is the foundation of good citizenship. The majority needs to recognize the consequences of the downward spiral that is proving so corrosive. More citizens, the media, and thought leaders need to become more active in promoting respect for the rights of others, tolerance, respect for laws and authority, and contributing to our communities. Left and right—and everyone in between—would do well to remember words from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”