Why have our politics become so dysfunctional? The answer is really not so hard to find. Our founders knew the nation would always have its divisions — of interests, values, opinions. The hope in framing the Constitution was that we’d nonetheless find ways to move the nation forward by negotiating compromises.
The question “How can we fight to increase our power?” would always be there, they understood, but the question “How can we cooperate to serve the good of the nation?” was supposed to have greater weight.
But in our times the spirit of conflict has overpowered the spirit of cooperation. And it is clear that it was on one side of the battle lines this view of politics as a kind of war gained ascendancy.
Since the early 90s, I have been in regular contact with both conservatives and liberals. As Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich embarked on their campaigns to foster hostility toward “librels,” one could hear growing hostility from people on the right toward those on the other side.
This antagonism from the right escalated for a very long time, as I can testify, before it began to be reciprocated by many liberals. It is, indeed, only in the past several years that the anger that liberals have been receiving from conservatives for nearly a generation has begun to be returned.
The practice of politics as war was strengthened still further during the presidency of George W. Bush. The year 2002 was pivotal in the choice of strife over cooperation.
In the wake of 9/11, the Democrats – in accordance with the American custom in wartime – set aside differences and rallied round the president. But then President Bush (and his strategist Karl Rove) chose to break apart that national unity in order to gain an electoral advantage. They deliberately put into the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security a “poison pill” — putting in an irrelevant piece, which they knew Democrats could not support, that undermined labor — to trap the Democrats into voting against that form of the bill.
The idea for that department had come from the Democrats (and been resisted for months by the president), but now their “no” votes could be used to defeat them in the coming elections for being “soft on terrorism.” In order to gain the Republicans another Senate seat, they even smeared an American patriot like Senator Max Cleland of Georgia – who’d left three of his limbs in Vietnam – as someone aligned with Osama bin Ladin.
Politics as combat took new form when Barack Obama became president, and the Republicans decided to make it their priority to make him fail. Such a decision was unprecedented in American history—let alone at a time of national crisis, when the economy was teetering on the edge of an abyss, and when therefore the president’s failure could mean suffering for millions of Americans.
Because of the across-the-board obstructionism the Republicans chose, we’ve lately seen the least productive Congresses of our history. Can anyone name an issue that the Republicans have approached in the spirit of “What can we accomplish, despite our differences, that will create a better America?”
And now the spirit of strife has erupted in spectacular fashion in the two biggest political stories of the present moment.
As soon as a vacancy opened on the Supreme Court, the Republicans in the Senate made an unprecedented declaration of non-cooperation. Never before in American history has a Senate refused categorically to consider any nominee they might receive from the president in office when a vacancy opened up on the highest court. “Advise and consent” has been perverted into the all-out strife of “no consent no matter what.”
Meanwhile, in the race for the Republican nomination for president, an apparently unstoppable front-runner — of a nature likewise unprecedented — has arisen.
Never have we seen a candidate in the presidential arena so eager to pick even unnecessary fights – not only with his presidential rivals, but also with Fox News and Megyn Kelly, Mexicans and Muslims, journalists. With this bellicosity, Donald Trump has captured passions in the Republican base to become the Party’s dominant leader. Trump is a leader suitable for a party that for a generation has taught its followers to see politics as a form of combat.
Politics as cooperation requires both sides. Politics as war can be imposed upon the whole system by the choice of any one side.
And so it is that –as the Republican Party has become increasingly possessed by the spirit of conflict – our political system has become dysfunctional, disabled from working toward a better America.