Polarized and Paralyzed

May 13th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Politics in America has become polarized and paralyzed.  Partisans on each side of the ideological divide are now so unyielding in their beliefs that compromise, the essential element of democracy, is often impossible.  Moreover, the few politicians who make an effort to work constructively with their counterparts often find themselves in trouble back home.

The result is an inability to do the nation’s business without extreme reactions on both sides.  The health care reform law recently enacted illustrates the problem perfectly.  Most people agreed that health care costs too much and that all citizens should have reasonable access.  Most understood that there were serious problems with the health care insurance industry.  Despite that general agreement, the bill ended up being passed in the most partisan manner possible, with neither side willing to compromise or to tolerate those who tried to promote compromises.

There’s an excellent editorial in the Washington Post that discusses this problem:

The increasing polarization of the nation’s politics is fueling a blood sport in this election year: the ideological purification of both parties. …

The world is complicated, and an electorate so diverse in geography, race, class and beliefs can’t be shoehorned into two fixed templates. There is no particular reason why all advocates of fiscal restraint should also oppose abortion rights, or why supporters of a progressive tax code should necessarily favor restrictions on gun ownership. The more litmus tests are imposed, the greater the number of voters who will find themselves politically homeless.

Moreover, the ideologies that the parties seek to impose risk turning the United States into the next Greece. It is only slightly a caricature to say that today’s Republicans offer tax cuts as an answer to all problems in all situations, no matter the present level of taxation, and that Democrats defend every entitlement program continuing into eternity, no matter how unaffordable. The only ground for “compromise,” as we have seen, then is to cut taxes and raise spending, dooming the country to unsupportable debt.

Is there a solution to this problem?  If there is, it has to involve movement toward a popular understanding of the fact that disagreement does not equal lack of patriotism or a disregard for the country’s future.  It also has to include a renewed understanding that in a constitutional democracy, the majority will prevail as long as it acts withing the boundaries of the system.  Labeling the other side as evil, fascist, or socialist — when none of those labels is accurate — only serves to promote more polarization and paralysis.

We’re all creatures of our education (or lack of it) and our experience.  Part of the experience that’s formed my attitude toward politics in general has been personal interaction with dozens of members of Congress, including very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans.  Not one of these people ever evinced lack of patriotism or concern for the welfare of their country.  All of them were decent people who were respectful of their colleagues and others, including me, regardless of differences in political opinions.

In the final analysis, politicians can only be as good and as fair-minded as the people they represent.  If the price of compromise and open-mindedness is defeat at the polls, they’ll respond appropriately.  That means that the problem is not politicians or political parties; it is us.

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11 Responses to “Polarized and Paralyzed”

  1. Brian |

    This contentiousness is nothing new. I don’t even remember where I read it, but in the early days of the republic, they were every bit as rancorous as they are now, and in many cases even more so. Has everybody forgotten what happened to Aaron Burr, and why?

  2. larry |

    The demise of decency and trust among many of our politicians is pretty well documented even in our liberal media. A great many of the otherwise untainted entertain the notion that their elected positions are life time careers. Many forget how they got their position and from whom. No politician should be able spend as much time as say Arlene Specter or John McCain. Give new people with new ideas a chance.
    The reasons for polarization aren’t to hard to figure out. The liberals have decided to fix something that isn’t broken. The present upheaval is the result of actions of our president to implement his too far left agenda over the objections of most Americans. The opinion polls verify such objections.
    Brian, as to Aaron Burr, how many today even know who he was or what his fate was? I’ve wondered at times if he had not killed Hamilton, would his life gone in a different direction?

  3. Tom |

    Brian, you’re right, things were pretty bad during the early days, and the newspapers were downright shameful. Those who complain about the press today ought to take a look at what it was like back then. The Burr-Hamilton duel may have been inspired by political differences, but it may also have been the result of a personal dispute. Gore Vidal’s novel Burr is an excellent story of the Burr-Hamilton conflict (among many other aspects of the period). While it’s fiction, it sticks pretty closely to historical fact. In particular, Vidal’s speculation on the nature of the scandalous gossip Hamilton spread about Burr is pretty salacious.

    In the modern era, though, things have gotten pretty bad in the past couple of decades. With the internet and non-stop cable news outlets, it seems there’s no end of opportunities for people to rip into each other. At the same time, our economic and political problems are difficult to resolve, and sometimes even to discuss, with so much extremism flowing in both directions. I think we all need to cool our jets a bit and be more responsible, particularly in what we demand and expect from politicians.

  4. Tom |

    Larry, you’re pretty much making my point. There really are legitimate opinions that differ from yours, but I haven’t noted any willingness on your part to try to understand that.

    Who is Arlene Specter? A nice lady, no doubt, but I’ve never heard of her.

  5. d |

    Larry,dude. How can you say this is all the president’s fault? Don’t you remember why he got elected,we were all sick of the way the country was going down the drain,how soon they forget. Obama just does not have that kind of power alone. Surely,you aren’t serious about it not being broken,what lala land are you living in?
    All Democrats are not for everything Democrat,for example, me.

  6. larry |

    My inability to proof read my comments is becoming legend. Of course I was referring to what’s his name from Pennsylvania. A one time republican as I recall.
    On the subject of compromise and points of view, I would point out the old adage of “The pot calling the kettle black”.
    I’ve found that most liberals prefer complete submission instead of compromise from those with a different point of view. Not a real good environment for peaceful solutions to be found. Maybe you liberals should try for a consensus instead of total surrender, maybe then we could work out these so called polarizing issues.

  7. larry |

    Your hero has been in office for almost 17 months. He is long past the luxury of getting a free pass by blaming Bush.
    You lament the presidents lack of power to be the cause of our problems. A statement that rings hollow especially when you consider how much blame has been leveled at the man he replaced.
    Overall this country is the best in the world. Liberals and progressives like to point out what they consider great flaws in this nation but I’d like for them to name just one that surpasses the U.S. in any respect.

  8. Tom |

    “I’ve found that most liberals prefer complete submission instead of compromise from those with a different point of view.”

    Where, exactly, and how did you “find” that, Larry? The truth is, that statement can be made about extremists on both sides. Fortunately, I don’t think most people fall into that category. The ones who do, however, are blockheads who can’t understand that anyone could possibly have a legitimate opinion that’s different from theirs.

    “Maybe you liberals should try for a consensus instead of total surrender….”

    Did you even read the article, Larry? Maybe you should try again, slowly. Nothing I said or quoted supports your statements; just the opposite, in fact.

  9. d |

    He’s not my hero,Larry. I just said the country was in a mess for more than just his time,you don’t read,you judge. I never said it was Bush’s fault,it was a lot of bad decisions, by a lot of people,that got us there,although,I have great distain for Bush,as you do for Obama. I did not say his lack of power was the problem,just that he can’t do anything alone,except veto. I do not give him a free pass, I am very dissappointed in him,he has not honored his campaign promises and I,for one, am totally disillusioned with him. I am,however a Democrat,not a liberal fanatic,and do not agree with all that the democratic party does or says,or believes. I totally dissagree with most of what the Republican party says,does and stands for. That does not make me a liberal loon,or does it to you? I dissagree with you a lot,but still respect your point of view and have actually listened to you,and your side,sometimes even learning from you. You need to do the same for me and those who agree with me,if anyone ever does,a rarity. Although,I seriously doubt that you will ever learn anything from me:)

  10. larry |

    My statement was a generalization of my overall experience with liberals. I was not singling out your comments in particular. Something you seem to over look is the fact that as comments on your piece continue to accumulate, other issues get into play that were not in the original posting. I personally feel that such input is good because it will allow for differences in opinion to be aired.
    Aren’t you discounting the fact that my first comment was pretty much in agreement with your thoughts on our present political situation? The trouble with most liberals is their inherent disrespect for those that hold opposing views.
    Abortion, immigration, healthcare, Second Amendment, Gay rights and Christianity are all areas where liberals refuse to seek any compromise with people that have countering views. Wouldn’t it be safe to say that such behavior would polarize the population.

  11. d |

    So,you are saying conservatives are seeking compromise on those issues you mentioned? That has not been my experience,either,and Larry,you will not compromise on those issues even a teeny bit. At least,not that I can remember,maybe I am wrong,I have been once before.

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