It’s been said to me that after his Presidency, Harry Truman said his biggest political fear was “partisan sorting”- that all the liberals would become Democrats, and all the conservatives would be Republicans. We’ve basically lived that out. Just about every Republican in Congress calls themselves a conservative, while Democrats stand behind the equally valueless term of all being progressives. Our sorting has probably gone even further than Truman could have ever forecasted though, as voters increasingly have sorted themselves demographically- to the point where one can passingly look at someone and almost know how they vote.
Today is the 214th anniversary of the duel between Vice-President Burr and Treasury Secretary Hamilton at Weehawken, NJ. Most Americans regard that event today as silly, an example of how not to resolve our differences. The truth of the matter though is that our divisions today are certainly no different than they were then. The era of Donald Trump, following the eras of Obama, Bush 43, and Clinton, is just the next step in our paralyzing polarization. Family members aren’t speaking, friendships have ended, and insults have been hurled over an election that is two years into our past now. I get why- the current President has actively tried to harm groups of people who are in the opposite political party- but this is no healthy way for a country’s politics to function. The backlash is an increasingly identity based Democratic ticket for the 2018 mid-terms, which will only polarize more a national election that really should be about who our country is. The further down the rabbit hole we entered with Newt Gingrich’s quest to destroy Bill Clinton that we go, the worse the problem gets.
The functional problem with our increased polarization is that it destroys all political considerations but partisanship. It is in the interests of a representative at any level of government to represent the interests of the people who elected them. Democrats represent liberal voters, because conservative voters are Republicans, and vice-versa. Split-ticket voting decreases. It changes governing behavior too. When there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, there could be someone with similar political interests to compromise with. In this environment, Republicans voted against everything President Obama wanted, and were rewarded by their voters with total control of the federal government and many states. Democratic voters have shown little interest in rewarding any Democrats for working with Donald Trump. The result is party-line, ideological legislation.
The broader political result is a Congress that cant get much done. The New England Republican is gone. The Blue Dog is gone. The Republican Party in Congress has a chance to be rid of all pro-choice members, and be entirely pro-life. Demographics are kicking solidly liberal Democratic Congressmen like Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano to the curb. We like to say politics are tribal, but the Congress is literally taking on an “us vs. them” look. When the parties divide like that, you’re not going to get much compromise or unity, even behind things of national importance. It’s better politics to attack the other side for anything they do.
Some say it doesn’t matter. My perspective has always been different. One of my first bosses, Senator Chris Dodd, used to talk about how he passed legislation co-sponsored by the likes of Orrin Hatch, Pete Dominici, and Mitch McConnell. He proudly spoke of passing the Family and Medical Leave Act with Republican co-sponsors. I don’t want to hold up the 80’s and early 90’s as some era of special national unity, as Senator Dodd had to fight for the passage of FMLA through two vetoes by President George H.W. Bush, but the point is that Congress got stuff done then. Major 20th Century achievements such as the interstate highway system, the space program to the Moon, and the 1960’s Civil Rights legislation were passed bi-partisanly. We call LBJ the “master of the Senate” today because he was able to work across the aisle both as Senate Majority Leader and President to pass major, nation-changing legislation.
Today, LBJ would have been primaried in 1954- and who knows how different history would be.