Divided We Stand

Finding our way forward through political polarization

Feature_PoliticsA single day in June highlights how sharp divisions in public opinion have caused havoc on both sides of the pond.

Great Britain caused global gyrations by electing to leave the European Union on June 23, while on this side of the Atlantic our three branches of government spiraled toward stalemate on issues without taking a single vote.

The eight-member Supreme Court, left short-handed by Senate Republicans’ unprecedented refusal to consider a president’s high-court nominee, deadlocked on a case involving an Obama executive order to allow millions of unauthorized immigrants to live legally in the United States.

At the U.S. Capitol building, Democrats staged a 25- hour sit-in on the House floor to get the Republican majority to hold a vote on a “no fly, no buy” gun safety measure one week after the Orlando shooting spree.

Congress even left for its seven-week summer break without weighing in on a bill to combat the spread of the Zika virus. Democrats opposed the Senate-approved measure after House Republicans added unrelated riders that targeted Planned Parenthood and other “poison pills.”

June 23 was just another day of Washington gridlock to many observers. In reality, it was a taste of things to come. The unpredicted Nov. 8 election of Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s lock on Congress showed just how divided the nation had become.

Saint Mary’s faculty members say that the country hasn’t witnessed this kind of political polarization and disintegration since the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. But neither are they ready to declare today’s democratic decline “Mourning in America” or the “Final Frontier.”

“This is not the first time that this country has faced a kind of crossroads,” Politics Professor Stephen Woolpert said. “Fortunately, we’ve managed to pull ourselves together and find the resources to remind ourselves what it is we can and need to do together.” Professor Carl Guarneri, an expert on 19th- and 20th-century U.S. history, reminds us that polarization and paralysis are nothing new, nor are the challenges inherently more difficult.

“We did have a Civil War,” he said with a smile. “Or you can go even farther back to the first decade of the founders in the 1790s. The Jeffersonians and Hamiltons each believed the others were traitors to the country and conspiring with outsiders to overturn the American government, and the Federalists put in alien and sedition laws.”

Guarneri considers the country a little less gridlocked now than in the 1870s to 1890s before the Progressive Era, when, he said, the parties were very evenly matched and Congress got very little done. “The issues debated seemed endless: the tariff, railroad aid, civil service, but in the context of the time they were deemed very important and symbolic of larger issues, as immigration is now.”

The Progressive Era that followed (1890s–1920s) offered renewed hope according to Woolpert, Guarneri, and other scholars. Faced with a dismal economy, poverty, corruption, and racism, new leaders emerged. The next generation of progressive reformers cleaned up politics; professionalized the civil service; and helped expand public education, health care, and other policy arenas.

“There are historical reasons to be sanguine,” Woolpert noted, “but it’s hard to remember that when every day there’s another reminder of our problems.”

Today’s partisan divisions began with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, according to Woolpert, whose research interests include the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court. The gulf has widened considerably since then: The Democratic Party has tacked slightly left, the GOP has shifted way right, and very few remain in the middle, according to survey data from sources such as the Pew Research Center.

“It’s almost like Republicans and Democrats are living in two different countries,” Woolpert said, “and they don’t like each other.”

The American public is divided over economic, social, and foreign policies; race; and many other issues. When Congress does vote on legislation, powerful interest groups get their way and the majority of Americans don’t, according to a definitive study published by the American Political Science Association in 2014.

Other factors such as redistricting, money in politics, and partisan media are driving us further apart. Republicans have held their largest advantage in the House since 1931, in part because the 2010 “Red wave” gave GOP-controlled state legislatures significant power to gerrymander districts after the last census.

Congressional Republicans have blocked virtually all meaningful legislation and functions since then. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland is not the only judicial appointment or nominee caught in the partisan crossfire.

Not surprisingly, national approval ratings of Congress hover near record lows of about 12 percent, though voters generally approve of their own legislators.

In addition to the growing polarization between the GOP and Democrats, deal making has become more difficult because party leaders have lost clout within their own parties. House Republicans, in particular, have become less accountable to their own party. In 2011, President Barack Obama and former Republican House Speaker John Boehner forged a difficult “grand bargain” on a long-term budget deal, which fell apart because Boehner couldn’t get it past renegade conservatives in his own caucus. In 2013, House Republicans bucked the speaker’s warnings again and shut down the government for two weeks over the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Over time, Guarneri said that both major political parties lost “inherited” political allegiances (for example, white Southerners voted Democratic for a century because the Civil War and Reconstruction were pushed by Republicans). As a result, the parties are not the ideologically diverse coalitions that they used to be, which encourages inter- and intraparty deal making.

“One of the reasons the South was divided was that they didn’t have political parties,” said Guarneri, who is completing a book about the Civil War. “Lincoln, on the other hand, had a real two-party system to work with. He was masterful with the carrot and stick. He did a really good job of using the political system to build coalitions that would stay pro-Union, and he actually passed legislation which he couldn’t have done if there was no organized vocal opposition.”

That kind of brokering between responsible political parties is hard to imagine in today’s rough-and-tumble political climate, especially without an Honest Abe or Abby in sight. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump entered the general election as the two most unpopular nominees since modern polling began.

This presidential campaign will likely go down as the most polarized, unpredictable, and just plain bizarre ever, with daily dramas that made current shows such as House of Cards look more like Friends.

Guarneri said that there was “no historical or political precedent for Donald Trump’s victory,” one day after an angry electorate sent shock waves around the world.

As a result, our divided country now has the first president-elect with no military or public service experience; and the GOP will control all three branches of the U.S. government, and roughly two-thirds of state legislatures and governorships.

While Democrats are left to figure out what they can do differently, the party of Lincoln still faces an identity crisis according to Clinton delegate and Associate Professor Monica Fitzgerald.

“Democrats may be struggling [with these losses],” said Fitzgerald, “but the Republicans will have to confront a president-elect who does not appear to have any allegiance to the GOP or its platform.”

Trump offered few policy details during the long political campaign, when traditional Republican values took a back seat. Woolpert characterized differences between Democratic and Republican visions as “whether to have a society open to inclusion versus one that is closed and isolated.”

The GOP has embraced an “America First” battle cry that offends the party establishment, though maybe not as much as its standard-bearer’s distasteful and divisive rhetoric, according to Woolpert, Guarneri, and Fitzgerald.

“Trump rose to fame on a strain of nationalism more than people in the past,” said Fitzgerald, a women’s historian who teaches courses on social justice and gender studies, “and I think history teaches us a lot about these moments of fear and nationalism.”

Community empowerment, not national politics, is the future for Saint Mary’s alumna Jahmese Myres ’06, who has spent the last six years as a grassroots organizer to improve job quality and access in Oakland with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy.

“Politicians are not going to save us,” said Myres, who, like many of her friends and former classmates, was inspired by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “There’s a national groundswell for change that comes from the bottom up and that pushes local, state, and potentially national changes,” said Myres, who served as SMC Associated Students president in 2006.

“When there are some wins or actions—like raising the minimum wage or Black Lives Matter—or that rare candidate who speaks to our dreams, it ignites a lot more passion and excitement, and we see an opportunity for change.”

Come Jan. 20, Myres will be organizing in Oakland; Woolpert and Guarneri will be teaching on campus; and Fitzgerald will be observing the inauguration of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. with her Jan Term class, The Making of a President.