Semro column: A House divided
Abraham Lincoln, in his 1838 Lyceum address, offered a prescient warning given what would happen twenty-three years later. In his speech, Lincoln praised the constitution and the institutions of American democracy in the strongest terms. But he cautioned his audience that the greatest danger facing the country came from within the country itself. He said.
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined … could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point is the approach of danger to be expected? If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
Forty-two years earlier, in George Washington’s farewell address, the first President warned that political parties needed to be restrained, because they could distract a popularly elected government from its constitutional and legal responsibilities. Political partisans could create false public alarm by amplifying “jealousies” between factions and regions. According to Washington, parties could also promote political instability and provide foreign countries access to the government in a way that could serve their interests over ours.
While America has bridged many divides and surmounted many crises from civil war to world war, we shouldn’t take these warnings from history too lightly.
Today we face political, ideological and regional divides similar to those faced in the 1850s. To prove the point and in stark contrast to the concerns of Lincoln and Washington, our current President at a campaign rally last month, said that: “Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice and rage. They want to destroy you. And they want to destroy our country as we know it.” That kind of speech may very well represent what our two most revered and admired Presidents feared most.
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Depending upon your party or ideology, it might be easy to blame Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi for all of this. But unfortunately, in our current state of hyper-partisanship, the real problem is us. Too many of us demonize the other side and reward those who capitalize on those divisions for their own benefit. If that benefit is mostly about political office, influence, cable TV ratings, or something similar, it doesn’t serve the country.
In October, the Pew Research Center published a truly disturbing survey, entitled “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal.” Not too surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans don’t agree about much, except that partisanship is increasing. But according to the survey that partisan divide has moved from political disagreement toward personal animosity. More and more, members of one party view members of the other party as flawed, close-minded, dumb, lazy, immoral and even treasonous. For large numbers of Americans, the other side are no longer viewed as fellow citizens, but the enemy. That doesn’t bode well for our future.
According to Pew’s results, 64 percent of Republicans view Democrats as “close-minded.” Worse yet, 55 percent of Republicans view Democrats as “immoral” and a whopping 63 percent of Republicans view members of the other party as “unpatriotic.” Something close to a majority of Republicans, 46 percent, view Democrats as “lazy.”
In contrast, while Democrats generally view Republicans to be as patriotic as themselves, 73 percent of them consider Republicans to be “close minded.” And 47 percent of Democrats view Republicans as “immoral.” As an aside, 36 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats view the other side as “unintelligent.”
All of this animosity has led to a very unproductive polarization in our elected government. Party primaries are more likely to select candidates from the farther-right or farther-left, even though the American public is much more centrist. Today, political moderation in Congress is a rare commodity.
The problem is that the constitution, which defines our republic, is fundamentally based upon compromise. Without a significant majority, it’s almost impossible to pass and implement legislation without support from the other side. Thanks to hyper-partisanship, very little gets done and Congress spends most of its time in deadlock.
As a result, more power finds its way into the hands of a single president, something the founding fathers feared. The judiciary has become more partisan. And worst of all, Americans are losing faith in those institutions that are foundational to our democracy.
Ultimately, the real threat to America is what we’re doing to ourselves and not what others are doing to us. We have to stop viewing our fellow Americans as flawed enemies. And we have to stop listening to those on both sides that try to further division in the pursuit of their own ambition.
Bob Semro of Glenwood Springs is a former health policy analyst for the Bell Policy Center, and a legislative and senior advocate. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com
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