For the 18th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, North Carolina House Republicans had a very specific commemoration in mind. After convincing Democrats that no votes would be held that day in remembrance of 9/11, Republicans voted, in the absence of the opposition, to override the Democratic governor’s veto with 64 out of 120 members present, just barely the quorum necessary to conduct business.
Frankly, it sounds like the North Carolina GOP took a note from that House of Cards episode where the actor Kevin Spacey forcibly establishes a quorum in the Senate by carrying opposition party members into the chamber in handcuffs. Unfortunately, Netflix no longer has a monopoly on political melodrama—it’s coming soon to a state house near you.
No matter who is to blame for these shenanigans, Americans everywhere ought to be asking: how did we get here? In an increasingly partisan and ruthless political climate, are civility and bipartisanship still possible? On the other hand, are civility and political compromise truly desirable? None of these are easy questions. Yet, in the answers to these questions of polarization lie the solutions to many of the ills afflicting politics today. As Americans grow disillusioned by the vitriol and dysfunction synonymous with Washington and some citizens have begun to avoid political news entirely, it has become more important than ever to solve the problem of rampant partisanship.
One thing is for sure: polarization runs counter to democracy. As the two major political parties of the United States move further apart from one another on substantive policy and social issues, Americans are faced with candidates and policies that are increasingly less representative of their views, ultimately choosing the lesser of two evils in this race to the bottom.
Although the divergences between the two major parties on domestic policy, foreign affairs, and today’s “culture wars” may seem much clearer at the ballot box, the increasing inter-party differences actually worsen collective representation, leading to unhealthily large ideological swings at each election and greater instability in government. Switching between single-payer and a wholly private market every four years is sustainable neither for the healthcare industry nor for Americans’ peace of mind.
Either way, moderates lose, because when popular majorities sweep into office, radical policy-making—unrepresentative of the median American voter—ensues. The pendulum theory is an accessible example of this political phenomenon. However, with polarization, we don’t merely swing from right to left; we oscillate wildly by extremes. Just in the past decade, we’ve seen the terrifyingly rapid rises of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, white nationalist, and Green New Deal movements, each representing extremes in the Republican or Democratic parties.
It isn’t that we’ve never seen radical movements throughout history, and much political progress has been achieved by those who were once seen as extremists. But we’ve never seen such a whirlwind within such a short period of time—a head-spinning array of causes that leaves Americans with momentary amnesia every few months. For reference, it’s only been seven months since the three highest-ranking state officials in Virginia were accused of wearing blackface, posing in racist photographs, and sexual assault. Since then, the Green New Deal was introduced in Congress, the president of the National Rifle Association was forced out after the CEO was accused of extortion, and a member of the United States Congress was banned from visiting her grandmother in the West Bank at the American president’s urging. Welcome to American politics in the year 2019.
For many citizens, American political culture and its traditions are utterly nonsensical, with institutions unlike other democracies around the world. Yet, there are many pivotal moments in our history that continue to inform our actions and most intrinsic beliefs today—an American creed. Per Oliver Wendell Holmes, a former Supreme Court justice whose jurisprudence remains relevant to legal scholarship today, our system upholds a “free trade in ideas.” It’s why we construe freedom of speech protections to include hate speech—unlike our ideologically similar counterparts, France and Germany.
Just as we have inherited, or interpreted, the noble intentions of the Framers nearly two and a half centuries ago, our divisive political attacks follow a long tradition of political warfare. In the hotly contested presidential election of 1800, a whisper campaign of mudslinging and pointed gossip put Thomas Jefferson over the top. Fortunately for our Founding Fathers, there was no Twitter to blast their every statement, position, and concession to the national electorate. In another particularly famous and ruthless political altercation, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane, ceasing only when the cane itself broke. Luckily, we now have the Secret Service to break up a fight between the 73-year-old Donald Trump and 76-year-old Joe Biden if either gentleman actually decides to “take it behind the gym.”
Americans can judge these historical acts of political violence for themselves, whether we want to take comfort in the fact that worse things have happened, but that is not to say that we are home free in our current contemptuous political climate. These moments show what American politics have been and could be—a dysfunctional, ineffectual mechanism of democracy. Our political culture is truly a wild beast to be tamed, and when we take it for granted, we risk our institutions for the sake of winning a short-term political victory. Polarization is an illness, and only by looking into its causes can we truly find its cure.