Polarization Part II

June 27, 2014

Editors: This is the second in a three-part series on political polarization. 

By Stephen M. King, Ph.D.

“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”— John Adams

When asked what the Founders created in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin replied: “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN in the last few years regarding the contemptuousness and division of the American political system. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in “It’s Even Worse than it Looks” lay the blame for political polarization and ineffectual governing at the feet of the Republicans as a whole, and specifically the Tea Party. They brand the Republican Right as extremists unwilling and unable to work with Democrats, especially with President Obama, to achieve lasting good and promote the public interest.

Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson in “The Spirit of Compromise” are more conciliatory. They contend that political compromise is lost, swallowed up by inflated egos and the constant demand to campaign rather than govern. Thus, politicians are ensnared in their own trappings of power and prestige, foregoing the needs of the public. Only a return to the true “art” of compromise can save the Republic.

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s newest book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” comes closer to the truth of the problem: “Americans can’t agree on who we are because we can’t agree on who we’ve been.” He points out that American tradition is not rooted in “radical self-reliance and self-interest, but a balance between our love of individual freedom and our devotion to community.”

Thus, “hyper individualism” is the poison infecting the American political system. Dionne heralds the federal government’s position in society while chastising his liberal brethren’s distortion of the benefits of Progressivism.

More recently, two former politicians, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas), co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, released a document outlining 60 “concrete and achievable” recommendations that will enable the federal government to better govern “regardless of the deep ideological divides that exist both among lawmakers and the American public.”

With that, we can return to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Their thoughts quoted above go deeper than any of this, of examining philosophical and ideological divides or blaming one party over the other. And they are deeper than suggesting quick political fixes such as increasing voter participation or ensuring a fair process for drawing congressional districts or reforming the filibuster and Senate debate.

Adams and Franklin, like most of the Founders, understood that our nation was birthed in liberty — and for liberty to survive, political trust was necessary.

Liberty today is ebbing away. The reason is not solely because we have a Congress that has abdicated its responsibility for lawmaking. Nor is it because we have an executive branch that has disregarded its constitutional obligation to “see that the laws be faithfully executed.” Nor even because a judiciary has superintended its constitutional responsibility to “interpret” the laws in light of the parameters of the written Constitution.

These things have happened, but they are the result of the problem, not the problem itself.

Government is responsible for adhering to the wishes of the people. Yes, that indeed is true, but the people are responsible to the government for maintaining civic awareness and engagement.

The problem, then, is deeper: It is a disconnect between the populace and the government, between the governed and the governor. And what is disconnected is trust, that is acquired and maintained when each is faithful to the other. Faithfulness is a moral concern.

Perhaps Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, comes closest to the truth:

“Without morals, a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure (and) which insures to the good eternal happiness, are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”

Stephen M. King, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, holds the R. Philip Loy Endowed Chair of Political Science at Taylor University.

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