The Politics of Polarization and Obstructionism
This is the first in a series of columns addressing what I believe to be one of the nation’s most serious problems: Republican politics of polarization and obstructionism. Political polarization is being used by Republicans to prevent Democrats from governing. Obstructionism is the Republican stratagem of choice. Allow me to start with some general observations and then, in successive columns here on Justia’s Verdict, to explain not only how Republicans are working to make government divisive and dysfunctional, but also what has been, and can be, done to deal with that.
It should be understood that political polarization is not merely a Republican election strategy, nor is it a consequence of Republicans’ rigid ideological thinking. Rather, polarization has long been part of a philosophy for controlling the country politically. It is a scheme that can be used to deliberately alienate Americans, by influencing their attitudes toward their government, while at the same, making the system unworkable. It can also be used to manipulate voters. (For instance, placing polarizing issues on a ballot can bring out voters who might not otherwise have voted). Republican partisans (with whom I have spoken) are planning to continue their efforts to frustrate President Obama with ongoing obstructionism and increasingly shrill politics, which they understand will further polarize Americans. They are angry that they losing and they are good at gumming up the works, for they have nothing to offer the country other than preventing Democrats from having their way. Making government unworkable is totally consistent with their philosophical feelings towards government.
Thus, it is not an accident that our nation is politically divided. Rather, this state of affairs represents the success of the Republicans in dividing us. Shortly before the 2012 election, The Pew Research Center reported that American “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.” This was exactly what Republicans wanted to occur, and this report that it has, indeed, occurred, is a mark of their success.
During 2012 election campaigns throughout country Republicans added a new polarizing tool to their arsenal: Blatant dishonesty. They used blatant dishonesty to manipulate low- information voters. Of course, they knew that such dishonesty would offend informed voters, but they found that it works, and they believe that there is no serious price to be paid for such conspicuous lying. The same is true as to spending massive amount of money, with a twofold purpose: (1) to support sympathetic Republican candidates but should that fail (as it often did in this election), then (2) to leave the country more divided, making it difficult for Democrats to govern (it is not yet clear if the Republicans have accomplished this goal).
Since losing the presidential and other elections, Republicans have been meeting behind closed doors in capitals throughout the country, cities like Tallahassee, Madison, and Washington DC, to plot how best to further frustrate Democrats efforts to govern. For Republicans, a dysfunctional state of the nation is a healthy situation. Contemporary Republican political philosophy holds that the government must run either their way or no way.
Needless to say, this is a dangerous undertaking by Republicans. They will not, of course, be putting out press releases on how they plan to make governing all but impossible, for indeed it would be a violation of the oath(s) of office at both the state and federal level. Rather, they will quietly—although quite visibly—work their way, because it is succeeding for them.
We Have Become Polarized Because It Is a Strategy That Works for Republicans
Contemporary political polarization can be traced to the United States House of Representatives, and even more precisely to the opportunistic politics of Newton Leroy McPherson, who is better known as Newt Gingrich. Newt developed and implemented a highly controversial yet successful strategy to win control of the House of Representatives for Republicans by dividing and conquering, by destroying the good name of an institution so it could be operated on Republicans’ terms. When he and his supporters succeeded, it changed the nature of contemporary Washington, and that same strategy has been polarizing the country increasingly with each passing decade.
For example, when Newt first arrived in Washington (1979), rather than bring his wife and family there with him, he left them behind in Georgia and urged all of his newly-elected colleagues to do likewise. Then it became an unwritten GOP policy for those in Congress to leave one’s spouse at home; within a relatively short time, most all members of Congress stopped bringing their families to Washington. When the GOP controls Congress, business is conducted during a three-day week (with working days on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays), with members returning to their Congressional Districts for the other days. Members thus barely get to know their colleagues in the other party, which makes it all the easier to attack and demonize them as perceived political enemies. Gone are the days when virtually all members of Congress lived in Washington, where their families knew each other because their children went to school together, their wives undertook charitable activities together, and everyone was part of a congressional community.
Newt Gingrich and his allies also made incivility standard operating procedure in the House of Representatives. Everything was undertaken for the political advantage of the Republican Party, and to the disadvantage of its political opponents. This approach to governing has been (and continues to be) funded by corporate conservatives who can make more money when government does not require them to be publicly responsible citizens. It is always more lucrative to enjoy the benefit of government when you do not have to share its costs.
Republicans have had a devastating impact on the way in which business is conducted in Washington. With time, Gingrich’s cesspool-style politics of the House of Representatives also spread into the U.S. Senate as Newt’s former colleagues moved to higher office, and in the process carried to the U.S. Senate the same mentality and tactics they had learned and practiced in the House. There are countless examples of such small-bore political figures from the House carrying the polarization and nastiness into the Senate. I would offer as a poster boy Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a prototypical example of how this political virus has spread.
It is a sad but true fact that the divisive, obstructive, self-serving and vindictive politics that now dominate Washington found their base and grew within the southern Republican Party, and their politics found allies among other political conservatives scattered throughout the country. Recently, when I asked a conservative member of Congress if he was not embarrassed to be serving in an institution—the United States Congress—that had sunk to its lowest level of public approval ever, he responded: “Hell no, this is exactly what we want. This is how we hope to wean the American people from relying on government. We want them to hate government.”
President Obama’s Conservative Anti-Government Burden
I do not believe that Republicans can succeed by playing Americans for fools. The solution to their polarizing antigovernment nonsense is to continually document what they are doing and how they are doing it. Hopefully, those in the media (news organizations, political bloggers, and social-media commentators) will keep sharing examples of the endless examples of Republican obstructionism, nastiness, and divisiveness. Over the years, I have found that this Republican governing style does not do well when exposed to the pitiless light of publicity. See, for example, the administration of President Richard Nixon, with which I am most familiar.
President Obama will face no challenge greater in his second term than Republican-generated polarization and obstructionism. In turn, the country will face no greater problem. Because Republicans do need the good will of the president for a few matters, they will pretend to assist in moving the country forward to avoid crises that could hurt them as well as others. Nonetheless, they are spreading the word privately—and so I expect soon they will publicly make it very clear—how they plan to foil this president. As I see it, however, they have met their match. President Obama has the disposition and determination, as well as the skills and the tools, to prevent Republicans from defeating his plans for the nation. And I look forward to discussing it all.