E Pluribus Unum
“Out of many, One”… out of the many 13 colonies our earliest forefathers found a way in 1776 to put aside their many differences and found a way to unite and forge one united country. Working together, they built a system of government where reaching consensus was common and civility was the standard.
However, over the course of the last few weeks, during the confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh we have witnessed, in my opinion, the final collapse of civility and civil discourse among not just our elected leaders, but the general citizenry.
Unfortunately, the collapse hasn’t been one without warnings as we have seen the erosion occur on both sides of the political aisle for many years and decades. We must take a moment and reflect as a society and examine where we are now and where we have been to determine what kind of a society and country we want to be to move forward.
In the 1990s we saw the rise of the Right led by soon-to-be-Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gringrich took to the airways using C-SPAN and the media to communicate to and rally the Right by selling his vision for America, which became The Contract With America. This strategy of using rhetoric was a defining moment where we would begin to see the current division of our democracy.
Prior to this it was acceptable to disagree with one another without being disagreeable. Where political opponents would vigorously debate policy but at the end of the day come together and still call each other friends. A prime example of this is President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. Where O’Neill once said to Chris Matthews “that here in Washington we’re all friends after 6,” in reference to Reagan visiting the Speaker’s “Holding Room.”
In the 1990s the epic battles between Speaker Gingrich and President Bill Clinton produced budget battles and shutdowns which ultimately led to the an intense investigative mindset by Congress that would lead to the impeachment of President Clinton. Throughout the 1990s, this was a time where we saw a sharp decline of the bipartisanship spirit of America.
The 2000s saw the historic Bush v Gore Supreme Court case that ultimately decided the election in favor of then-Governor George W. Bush. This decision further created a divide in the American political arena, but also emerged in the general public. Many in the country would say that President Bush “was not their president” and loathed the fact that he was in the White House.
Sadly, it took the horrific attack on our soil of 9/11 to unify our nation, a unity that would last only two years.
During the course of the Iraq War we saw a further decline in the political discourse when the debate on whether to go to war and the post invasion strategy morphed into a name-calling vitriol against President Bush and Republicans who supported the War. Much of this was not a debate on policy, but rather personal attacks against President Bush as a war monger and Nazi.
In 2008 with the historic election of President Barack Obama, the schism of political hate hit a new low point. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview in the National Journal on Oct. 23, 2010, that, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. … I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.” Rather than attempt to create a working relationship, Republicans went out of their way to not work with the majority party or President Obama.
The rise of the Tea Party came in response to the agenda of President Obama and the policies of the Democratic majority. The Tea Party protested the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), stimulus programs such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, cap and trade environmental regulations, and, finally, health care reform known as the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.”
If you look at the protests and “debate,” much of it resembles what we see from the left today. In the Obama presidency we saw people use hateful and even racist language against President Obama and Democrats. Much of the right engaged in anger and, yes, even racial politics.
Examining today’s heated political environment with President Donald Trump you can once again see that the political debate has continued to be bombastic and one based on shouting at each other rather than talking with one another. Looking at how the confirmation of now-Justice Kavanaugh played out we saw, much like we did during debate about the ACA, a low point in political debate.
Protesting is a cornerstone of democracy that has proved to be a catalyst for change throughout history; however, tracking down elected representatives and shouting at them and blocking their movements is not a form of protesting. Rather than protesting peacefully to persuade the elected members, their actions were more confrontational.
We have seen both sides currently take to yelling and shouting at elected representatives at restaurants and even on the doorsteps of their homes. Even almost two years after losing the White House Sec. Hillary Clinton stated, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. We all must seek to rise above this divisive tenancy.”
There is blame to be placed on both sides of the political spectrum; however, the tone and tenor of political debate over the last 30 years has gone from irritating, to bad, to horrendous, to the fact that I doubt our founding fathers would recognize the nation we’ve become. The way we talk about politics and public policy has descended into who can get the best dig into the other side while trying to attract the most views, likes, and retweets.
No longer are we a society that respects the differing opinions of each other, no longer are we a society that believes in the art of the compromise, no longer are we a society that seeks to build and maintain relationships with those who have different views than our own.
Instead we as a country have gotten away from the concept of E Pluribus Unum and are dividing ourselves based on political and social tribalism. Over the past three decades we have become a polarized country where people only interact with those who agree with their views and seek out media and relationships that match what we believe without challenging even our own assertions and views.
If our founding fathers observed our current political climate they would view it as fractured, polarized, judgmental, and sad.
For the good of the country and the health of our democracy we must change. We must have a significant course correction in the way we interact with each other while we have substantive debates on policy and, after the debate ends, recognize each other as humans and act cordially towards one another. We need to remember that there is far too much that unites us than divides us because I still firmly believe that out of many there is one, and that one is America.