In Praise of Divisive Politics

The 2018 election has come and gone, and the post-mortems have begun. A recurring obituary is this: America is dead, and divisive politics killed it.

Indeed, many of our most listened-to public intellectuals, including David Brooks and Ross Douthat, say a breakdown in civil discourse and identify politics are tearing the country apart. Others have suggested that politics today is more divisive than at any time in history, and this divisiveness is a threat to democracy.

I have great respect for Brooks and Douthat and take no pleasure in the coarseness of today’s political discourse. But in evaluating such matters, it is good to have a long memory. It is important to remember that the Civil War that left a million Americans dead (at a time when the U.S. population was 1/10th what is today.) It is important to remember 1921, a year in which the wealthiest black neighborhood in America, in Tulsa, was burned to the ground, killing nearly 40 people, injuring more than 800, and destroying 35 square blocks of the city. It is important to remember the 1963 Poor People’s March on Washington. And the Watts riots of 1965, which left 35 dead and $40-million in property damage. (That would be a half-billion dollars today.)

Or what about this: On March 1, 1954, people who wanted Puerto Rican independence from the United States, opened fire with automatic pistols and wounded five congressmen in the very chamber of the U.S. Congress. The bullet holes are still plainly visible in the House chamber.

And if you think Congress is locked in gridlock today, consider this: Though the United States declared independence in 1776, it took our young nation 11 years — until 1788 — to ratify the Constitution. One of the early sticking points was what to call the president.

The colonies were united in their disdain for kings, but without some central power, cooperation between the newly formed states — especially the economic cooperation needed to ensure survival of the new republic — was breaking down. So, determining the role and title of this executive office was a huge issue. John Adams reported in his journals and letters that even after they decided on the duties of this office, it took days longer to come up with the name “President.”

And then there is the famous Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel of July 11, 1804. Burr was the sitting vice president when he shot and killed Hamilton, a former secretary of the Treasury. Burr fled briefly to South Carolina to escape criminal charges, but he ultimately came back to Washington to finish out his term. It probably overstates the case to suggest that by the standards of the day, killing a high government official was more or less par for the course. One wonders, though, by how much.

Of course, these are just anecdotes, but they do indicate that what we’re seeing today, by historical standards, is not all that rough and tumble.

That’s not to say that things are not divisive, but to say they are more divisive than in the past is almost certainly false, and – even granting that there are some very divisive issues before us, let’s turn our attention to another important question: Are divisive politics bad?

To make a determination, it’s helpful to remember what we are actually debating that is causing this divisiveness: abortion, national defense, and — more recently – the overhaul of the single largest component of our country’s economy, healthcare.

The debates over these issues have indeed been divisive. But again, is that such a bad thing? After all, we’re not merely naming a bridge or voting on whether a 100-year-old house should be on the National Register of Historic Places. Deciding on the major issues of our day, if handled badly, could cost an entire generation its economic security. Even if the decisions are wise ones, they will have profound and long-lasting consequences. Should it be easy for any political faction to make wholesale changes without hearing from those who oppose those changes? And won’t that hearing necessarily result in division?

Those who want to make political change should be required to make their case to the American people. They should answer tough questions from a skeptical, vigorous opposition. That’s what public discourse, what our constitutional system of checks and balances, is all about.

Now, is the process frustrating? Yes. Does it sometimes result in “gridlock”? Again, yes. Does it occasionally even create embarrassing spectacles? No doubt, as recent watchers of C-SPAN and the national news and White House press briefings can readily attest.

But this slow, grinding and — dare I say it — divisive process also protects liberty. It prevents a small and powerful few from exerting their will, unchecked, over the vast majority of the rest of us.

So, the next time you think that American politics is too divisive, or the next time you hear the naïve, sentimental cry “Why can’t we just all get along?” remember another, wiser cry from history: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And remember, too, that divisive politics is one way we ensure that no one man or woman ever holds absolute power.


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