Moderates. Independents. These words seem to have lost their meaning in modern American politics, just something politicians talk about. The idea of those who don’t fly the red or blue flags proudly seems almost alien. But was it always like this? Was there a time when the word “moderate” wasn’t expected to be followed by “Democrat” or “Republican?” It wasn’t always this way.
Is that really a problem though? Yes. More and more Americans fear elections: the hostility, the constant state of dread approaching the final day, and, more than anything, the idea that the other side might win.
American politics have been polarized before: the Federalist/Anti-Federalists, the Civil Rights era, and the Red Scare. The tension of these eras faded with time. However, the most divisive era of American politics didn’t end so happily: The Civil War Era. When Lincoln was elected without a single electoral vote from the South, South Carolina immediately seceded, paving the way for the rest of the Southern states to follow suit. Will this divisive period of history repeat itself? If not, then the question must be asked: how will this period of polarization end?
Polarization had been on the rise in recent years, beginning in the 20th century, with the impeachment trials of Bill Clinton. Clinton was tried in the Senate on two charges: perjury and obstruction of justice. While there certainly was evidence of some wrongdoing on the part of the president, Congress did not have the support of the people. According to Gallup, only 34% of Americans wanted to see the House vote on impeachment. However, the Republican House of Representatives went forward with impeachment anyway, trusting in the Republican Senate to convict. Of the 45 Senate Democrats, not a single one voted guilty on either charge, and 11 Republicans broke party lines to vote not guilty on the perjury charge, with 5 of those also voting not guilty on the obstruction of justice charge. The failure to convince a single Senate Democrat that Clinton had committed a crime worthy of impeachment, as well as the fact that voting took place consistently with party lines, weakened the political power of Republicans and sent the message that House Republicans had hoped for impeachment on the simple fact that they controlled the Senate.
The 9/11 tragedy caused a decrease in polarization in the Bush era. The attack shocked the nation and led to a “rally around the flag” effect. Bush’s approval rating reached 90% in the days following the attack, empowering Bush to retaliate with the “War on Terror.” His approval did not drop below 50% for another 3 years. However, this political unity fell apart in the years following, mostly due to the Iraq war, and it was destroyed by the “Great Recession” of 2008, the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
The 2008 elections heralded a full return to the party-line polarization that had marked most of the previous 20 years. Multiple movements attempted to discredit sitting President Obama even after the elections, the most known being the “Birther Movement,” questioning Obama’s ability to be president in the first place on the grounds that he was born outside of the United States. The highly controversial Affordable Care Act only served to further the hatred and polarization already prevalent in the American political sphere at the time.
This polarization reached its peak with the 2016 elections. While the election and the winning candidate himself weren’t the cause of the current polarized state of the United States, they certainly served as a potent catalyst. During that election, we saw something unseen before in modern American politics: a candidate calling for the imprisonment of his rival candidate. “Lock Her Up” became a slogan of the Trump campaign. The idea that the opposition was “crooked” and criminal wasn’t a new one, but it was the first time that it had been voiced on the national level by a presidential nominee of a mainstream party.
So where do we stand now? As Frank Newport, a Gallup senior scientist puts it: “Americans’ party identification has become an increasingly powerful lens through which they view the world around them, as Republicans and Democrats over the years have increasingly diverged in their opinions on a number of important policy and social issues.” Americans more and more view their party status as a full identification of their political views, considering straying from the “party lines” to be a breach of their integrity. They hold a patriotism for their party, and slander and berate political leaders who break with the party, considering it near-treasonous.
This division has caused the word “bipartisan” to be almost foreign to American politics. Americans consider the opposing party to be the enemy, and working with them seems impossible. The American political arena is in gridlock: the president is straining against his constitutional checks, declaring states of emergency to get around Congress; the courts are failing to resist the spread of partisanship. The United States is facing another brutal period of political polarization, and the world knows it: according to Gallup, the U.S. Leadership has a global approval rating of 31%, the first time in history it’s been on equal footing with Russia (30%) and is surpassed by China (34%). These numbers send a worrying message: The United States leadership is viewed in the same light as the autocratic government of the People’s Republic of China and Russia.
We must take action, but what can we do? There’s no single issue tearing American parties apart, as there has been in the past. There’s no single solution, and we can’t expect one. Politics is about solving problems, and that doesn’t boil down to a single solution. But we all want the same thing in the end, don’t we? A better tomorrow, and a healthier, stronger Union. We only differ in the way that we get there. There is no simple solution, but there is one way to find solutions: talk. We have to talk to our fellow Americans, and hear what they have to say. In the words of Samuel Adams, “A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”