July 23, 2017

Pluralism vs. Polarization or Why Washington is Broken and What We Can Do about It

If you paid any attention to how our Federal Government has functioned, or more accurately, has been dysfunctional over the past four years, you’ve seen a textbook example of political polarization. We saw more of the same in the 2012 general election, epitomized by a Twitter tirade from real-estate mogul and reality TV personality Donald Trump. Mr. Trump tweeted after the networks called the election for Barack Obama (and then deleted portions of that tweet-fest) “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”, “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!”, and went as far as calling for “a revolution in our country”.

For many years I’ve held the opinion that the best government for our country was a divided one, where if one party held the White House, majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate should be held by the other. My reasoning is that this assures that only those things that benefit the majority of Americans can be legislated, with pure partisanship held to an inescapable minimum.

While technology has marched far beyond what any of the framers of our Constitution would recognize, politics is still a matter of humans – deeply flawed, emotional creatures, driven by fear, greed, prejudice and parochial interests. Knowing this, the framers of the Constitution ensured that amending their document, while possible, would be cumbersome, requiring super-majorities not only in both chambers of Congress, but also among the 50 states. They must have reasoned that anything such an overwhelming majority of Americans could agree on would most probably be a good idea.

The last few years have shaken my faith in such an arrangement. The GOP has moved further and further to the right, while significant portions of the Democratic Party have moved to the far left. Powerful forces have ensnared politicians (of both parties) into pledging rigid positions such as “no tax increases”, “repeal Obamacare”, “reverse Roe V. Wade”, “no cuts to Social Security” or “get out of all foreign wars now”, regardless of political realities that often require compromise. The result of this polarization has been utter gridlock, with the relentless pursuit of ideological “perfection” by both sides preventing any possibility of agreement on what is “good enough” to work.

To borrow from a political bumper sticker popular a few years back, “If you aren’t outraged, you haven’t been paying attention”. I’m not sure how many are with me on this, but I for one am outraged. Not by the GOP. Not by the Democratic Party. But by how the often dirty bickering and dickering that has always been a part of Washington politics has devolved into complete gridlock, where preventing your political opponent from getting any credit for successful governing has trumped (no pun intended) any pretense of carrying out the people’s business.

Both the GOP and the Democratic Party have over time each given us great presidents, along with presidents who proved to be miserable excuses for leaders. Both parties have great ideas in their platforms, alongside some of the most incredible, discredited drivel, pandering to the worst of their respective constituencies. Each party has among its supporters great Americans, patriots and deep thinkers, alongside people who would, not to put too fine a point on it, benefit from an extended stay in the funny farm, or at least some serious remedial education.

Blaming our political leaders for all this is attractively simple, but unfair and unhelpful. If we want to know the true culprit for Washington being broken, we need look no further than our bathroom mirror. Scan the comments posted by our fellow Americans on online forums and news articles and you’ll be staggered by the hatred and vitriol displayed against whatever party the commenter sees as his or her political enemy, along with that party’s supporters – “Libtards”, “Repugnicans”, are among the least objectionable, and that’s without repeating ad hominem attacks and name-calling targeting the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House, Senate Majority and Minority leaders, Supreme Court Justices, et al.

To see Washington working for us again, the watchword of the day must be “pluralism”, not polarization. Pluralism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of American English as “… a political theory or system of power-sharing among a number of political parties…”. If we can accept that the other side’s opinions are legitimate, even if we disagree with them; if we listen to each other with civility, remembering we all want America to be the best it can be; then and only then can we expect our leaders to behave accordingly. Our unique experiment in democracy can only work if we see our political opponents as that, opponents, not enemies.

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