Partisan Politics: Clear and Present Danger
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, nascent in the 1940s as America emerged from the greatest war in history and ascendant into the 1970s, marked a watershed achievement in equality and human rights in our nation’s history. Civil rights leaders Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshal, among others, worked tirelessly not only to change the law – giving African-Americans increased rights and protections under the law to political rights, housing and employment free from discrimination – but also to change American culture and attitudes toward racial integration and reconciliation. An impressive achievement in its own right, the Civil Rights Movement stood also as a signal of American commitment to equality, achievement, and community, a clearly preferable alternative to the competing system of Communism. The Civil Rights Movement was carefully watched worldwide, but particularly in South America and Africa, as democracy and capitalism competed with communist totalitarianism for dominance on each continent.[i] The legislative, judicial, and social changes sounded a clarion call to people in developing societies to make a choice between the American brand of progressive, rights-centric, and sustainable democracy as a model, or the Soviet brand of repression and despotism. Democracy, however imperfect, prevailed. Today, communism is marginalized in both regions.
What, then, does the developing world make of the current brand of legislative gridlock and social intolerance that prevails in the American political system today? Partisans struggle to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act before the administration has had a chance to see if it actually works as designed. Generally, legislative compromise is largely dead. Americans are at each others’ throats over gun legislation, tax policy, government spending, national security surveillance, and immigration reform. The media has devolved into camp followers, with MSNBC on one side and Fox on the other, with each constantly accusing the other of bad faith and dishonestly, rather than merely harboring a different ideology. Public actors are in constant crisis mode. They no longer discuss – they vilify. They no longer compromise – they indulge near constant confrontation. They no longer act like statesmen – they act as pure partisans. They threaten to shut down government over single issue brinksmanship. They no longer budget – they sequester. If this is the lowly level to which democracy has devolved, one might understand if the developing world looked at some of the alternatives.
If there is a concept that could produce compromise in the political process and reintroduce civility into our political process, it could be national security. It could be lawmakers and key actors in the executive branch coming to understand that the world is watching, and is making choices about which systems to emulate, with whom to partner and ally, and whom to resist. America must get back to a position in which our nation is, in fact, seen as exceptional and worthy of emulation. The prestige of America is priceless, yet our political system squanders it month by month with endless partisan bickering and one-up-manship. What if the parties actually placed the national interest, and the nation’s security, above party interest? What party leaders are willing and able to lead a negotiation for such a détente? Is it so unreasonable to think that a handful of real statesmen could rise on both sides of the aisle and negotiate a political code of conduct that would set general limitations on the harshness of advocacy and the personal attacks and vilification? Might we not look to the security, prestige and stature of our nation as adequate justification to act politically with a little more decorum.
[i] Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton University Press, July 2011, 360pp.