Has anyone else wondered from whence comes the depth of disdain, misapprehension, and distrust that is evident in today’s political milieu?
It is well granted that in our experiment in self-governance these past 225 years since rejection of the Articles of Confederation and ratification of the Constitution, political adversaries have often demonstrated personal and professional enmity. Any casual reading of our history is replete with examples that make today’s rhetoric seem rather mild—Limbaugh and Levin are paragons of civility compared to the partisans of the Federalists and Republicans of the 1790s (though, 18th Century politicos were generally more erudite and articulate than radio blowhards of today). From Hamilton and Burr, to Adams and Jefferson, to Calhoun and Jackson, to the strife of the Civil War, there has always been strong—bordering on, and even crossing over to violent—opinions and positions within our political sphere. But other than during the Civil War, the players did for the most part work out their differences through the avenues available in Congress and the Courts. (Though there can be made a strong argument for reinstatement of the duel to streamline the process!) For all their personal and professional differences, and in spite of their strong and contrary opinions, our Founders knew they were setting up a process through which numerous voices could be heard, a variety of avenues compared, compromises achieved to confront any and all challenges of their day, and future days. But today, rather than seek any solution to the challenges before us, our politicians and pundits seem more intent and content to follow in the footsteps of the Monkey Wrench Gang and just gum up the works for the opposition. (Granted, draining the oil from and putting sugar in the gas tank of machinery—physical or political–can give one a perverse, naughty pleasure. Perhaps a new Party, the Schadenfreudes, could come into their own. At least then there would be one honest Party.)
But why? To muse a bit, it seems that we are in the midst of another of our recurrent tribal phases. The politically inclined of us are all either Hatfields or McCoys, Redskin or Cowboy fans, Yanks or Rebs, Cavs or the Hated Heels; where allegiance to and adherence with the dictates of the group is the standard upon which individuals are judged. However, what’s fine and expected in sports is counterproductive–though also to be expected–in politics, even if politics is known as a blood sport. Those members who fail sufficiently to support and defend the group are met with more derision and distain by the ‘true believers’ than adversaries or non-members. Take for example the ascendant wing of the Republican Party’s characterization of RINOs (unfortunately a dying breed), or of some liberals’ reference to conservative Blacks as Uncle Toms. For all the talk of rugged individualism and dislike of group politics, especially in GOP circles, obeisance to the tribe has become the touchstone by which individuals are measured—not the strength or validity of their argument, or contribution to a greater good. Groupthink lives! For instance, how else to explain the almost universal rejection of the laws of physics and biology as accurate explanations of our world, as manifested through climate change and evolution, by otherwise educated and intelligent Republicans aspiring for leadership—and the same for too many in both Sects when it comes to vaccination and ‘cancer causing’ power lines. Apparently, the lack of a modicum of understanding of science or the physical world is no barrier to office. Such a lack—or else a hypocritical embracing of such ignorance–must be required to appease the group. In other words, the tribe trumps reason.
In fact, the corollary to this attitude is that for one tribe to succeed, the other must fail—or even more cynically, one’s failure is the other’s success. In this world, there is no such thing as a win-win situation. Thus is birthed the necessity to keep all members of the tribe, or faction, in line. Certainly, tribal cohesion can be a good, and necessary, aspect…in primitive society. It’s just an extension of being one’s brothers (and cousins) keeper.
However, the United States came into existence as an idea—not as an outgrowth of racial or ethnic homogeneity. Indeed, America is—if not unique, then certainly unusual—in that anyone can become an American. Our communal allegiances are supposedly sworn to the national ideals embedded in our founding documents as Americans—rather than blood and faction. One could never become a ‘true’ French or Russian or Nigerian as an immigrant just by going through political process for citizenship in those, or most any other country.
From our beginnings the Founders knew of the probability, if not certainty, of factions arising—whether based on region, issue, class/wealth. But the system they set up for themselves and heirs, as free white English speakers, assumed a certain willingness to allow the process to work through and achieve an outcome, however flawed that outcome may be, knowing there was the inherent ability to revisit and remedy policies that proved ineffectual. Indeed, the major motivation to deep-six the Articles of Confederation was the inability of the former colonies, now States, to achieve any degree of concurrence on any issue—not to mention the lack of any mechanism to compel the States to comply with any dictates to which theoretically the Confederation Assembly might agree. Hamilton, et al, knew and were embarrassed that the young United States was becoming a laughing stock to the Great and Lesser Powers of the World due to the new nation’s unwieldy form of government and lack of a single ‘voice’ to speak for the Country. The stasis that permeated the political process under the Articles germinated the Constitution. In other words, political inaction and stalemate were precisely the sins that our Founders were determined to thwart.
The writers of the Constitution were certainly wise enough to create a system that was not just a tyranny of the majority or faction by ensuring the minority had certain rights and obligations as well, and allowing that the Houses of Congress were able to write their particular rules of operation. As an untried system of government, there was no sense in attempting to get too far into the minutia of process…and if they had it is doubtful agreement would have ever been reached. But they did envision a legislative process that would achieve consensus and legislate—however ugly the process may be. Though the use of such devices as keeping bills stuck in Committee, adding poison pills to legislation, delaying review of Presidential nominations for unrelated matters, refusing to bring a bill to the floor for a vote, overwhelming a bill with non-pertinent amendments, or filibustering (or rather threat there-of; Senators don’t have the gumption to actually filibuster anymore, apparently) all have pedigree, degree does make a difference. Rarely, if ever, have they all been consistently abused to keep the wheels of government from functioning—ensuring that the only “progress” made is lurching from unavoidable crises to unwarranted threats. The other result of this legislative/Congressional effective abdication of responsibility is to strengthen the Presidency—for no President would or should sit idly by while Congress fails to act on national issues. And the failure to act is a direct result of members’ failure to compromise or reach accommodation through the legislative process.
Knowing men were full of passion, and factions intransigent, and States jealous of their prerogatives, our Founders tried to create a system that would still function to govern for the good of all. They knew it was not enough for the Country to depend on “men of goodwill” to legislate for the nation’s benefit—a workable process was a necessity. Their first attempt failed miserably. The second attempt, our Constitution, has proved its worth–but any system can be abused. The tribes have taken over.
Fans of the Articles of Confederation would and should be proud.