When, in the course of human events, does it become necessary for a government which has derived its powers from the consent of the governed, to govern? If the government doesn’t govern the governed, can it truly be called a government? Can the governors simply declare an issue a moral one, to which there is no compromise, and then call it a day? The American government thinks it can, and it does. Every single issue – from healthcare to gun control to civil rights – has become some sort of moral or religious issue. Now suddenly backed by principles so beyond the domain of men, mere politicians no longer have any right or authority to compromise or give in on any sort of issue. It’s hard to imagine any sort of electorate would want this kind of government, but it did and consistently does. So while it is all too easy to blame these politicians, the ones spouting and acting upon the polarized rhetoric, it is ultimately the American public whose political polarization has gotten us such leaders; this could very well prove to be a grave danger to the nation.
In order to win the mid-civil war Presidential election, Abraham Lincoln chose to run with a moderate democrat on his ticket, hoping to win with a broader range of votes. Tragically, Lincoln was assassinated soon after inauguration. Andrew Johnson took over as President, with an agenda sympathetic to those in favor of human ownership. The Radically Republican Congress thereafter began overriding his vetoes and making their bills into laws. Thus proving, there is nothing inherently unproductive about the nature of Congress. Today, however, no major legislation has passed in recent years, nor has the Congress bothered to enact any major change, conservative or liberal. The language of compromise has been one of no compromises, and the major goal for either side has been to prevent the other side from enacting any of what it wants.
It is this politically polarized electorate which seems to expect such behavior from its congress – or at least it acts like it. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center discovered that Americans are “further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history”, having “highly negative views of the opposing party” and believing “compromise…means that their side gets more of what it wants.” These polarized Americans could not fathom becoming friends, spouses, or even just neighbors with members of the opposing party. In this age, where we pick and choose what sources and what stories we’d like to see in the news, we’ve begun to ignore those who are “against” our beliefs and amplify those who are “with” our beliefs. But not only have we allowed our own beliefs to be emphasized, amplified, and intensified – seldom challenged – but we have begun to elect leaders who won’t compromise and treat the opposing side like some evil amoral ignorant group, regardless of anything they might have to say. We have come to believe our ideologies are our basic definition of self. It could not be more clear that we have gotten ourselves into this mess. We have chosen these leaders. We have chosen their unproductivity. We have chosen polarization. We have chosen our future.
Yet, in all honestly, how bad could this future really be? Never before has the American electorate made a unanimous choice, and we’ve been this polarized before in our history and the country turned out just fine. Both of these of things are true. And for context, that polarization was during the Antebellum Period, right before the Civil War – the bloodiest and most grotesque war in our nation’s history (including our involvement in the World Wars). Frankly, we may have been even less polarized then than we are today! Just as in modern times, both sides justified their position as being grounded in some moral principle well beyond the domain of men (yes, to address the elephant in the room, one side clearly did have the moral high ground). President Abraham Lincoln, the president who won the Civil War, saw this war resulting from the polarization of the Antebellum Period as “testing whether that nation…can long endure.” Nowadays, the Congress’s policy of non- governance will too test whether this nation will endure for the next generation.
The population is polarized; that’s not only a tragic occurrence but that’s also a major factor which lead to the Civil War. On top of all that, Congress does nothing. At the same time, none other than the founder of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience declared, “‘That government is best which governs not at all.’” It is true that too often when the government actually does something, it restricts freedom and liberty. One of the more recent major acts of governance in this country, the PATRIOT ACT, has essentially created a forthcoming end to the right to privacy. But one must understand this: Thoreau believed a democratic republican government like our own “cannot be based on justice” rather just what the majority believes, even if they believe in restricting the rights of the minorities. Yet, Thoreau’s government governed – even if it was unjust. Thoreau’s government ran the postal service, funded its programs, and didn’t shut it down occasionally when debating the other side. Our government doing something doesn’t mean a harsh and unjust Fugitive Slave Law, but rather funding its programs and running its institutions. In those days, the name “government” wasn’t some honorary designation or skeuomorphic device.
If the government continues to do nothing, the results will be disastrous. Government programs, the beloved ones like Social Security and Medicaid, and the noble ones like NASA and the National Parks, will go bankrupt; government shutdowns will become commonplace; millions of public employees will no longer be employees; no change, for better or for worse, will ever see the floor of Congress; the rhetoric of politics will become increasingly violent and grotesque if we continue to see the other side as being an evil seeking to destroy us. Obviously, if this were to in fact occur, it would create great chaos among the American populus. Lincoln’s nightmare of this nation perishing from the earth as we know it may no longer be just a fantasy.