Many Americans remember a more constructive engagement between members of Congress and may wish for similar relationships considering the great number of problems facing our nation’s present and future. Cooperation and unity once characterized deliberations in Washington, D.C., but has now become one of the most destroyed hopes in modern American times. Meanwhile, what are the background trends in America now preventing such an accord?
One trend reminds of a time when Republican lawmakers included left-of-center members while Democrats had its share of right-of-center members. However, at present, each of our major parties couldn’t be further apart. Interestingly, during the 50 years between 1930 and 1980, both parties were generally balanced by centrist views. In the last 40 years, the parties have steadily drifted from each other to become more and more ideologically pure. Not only have conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans almost disappeared but few if any centrists remain; hence, with each passing congressional session, the GOP has gone ever more right, the Democrats more left.
Before 1980, it was difficult to predict from party affiliation whether this and that American held liberal or conservative views. The relationship between party and voter, however, has become close to totally predictable. It’s argued that the differences have become more observable and the dislikes more apparent.
Meanwhile, the Democrats, formerly more often from agrarian settings with its power base in the South, have in more recent times become the urban party with attention focused mainly on concerns to city dwellers with cosmopolitan and secular values. Rural areas have shifted toward the Republican Party whose members tend toward religious, patriotic and family-oriented interests and values. These changes can arguably be attributed to in large measure from federal legislation in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The United States is diverse by way of its multi-racial, religious and social makeup. Many a social scientist has noted that ethnic uniformity makes it easier for groups of like-minded background to reach agreement. The realignment of political parties has led to increasing divisions by race, with the Republican Party increasingly white and Democrats more of color.
When the trends are studied, one finds that the major parties have come to represent diverging material interests with different moral values and ways of living. As the divisions have become more intense, oftentimes Americans hold attitudes characterized by hostility and distaste that’s focused on the other political party and its members. Again, using 1980 as a benchmark year, the feelings toward the opposite party have been trending down with what’s been more noticeable since 2000. Democrats more often nowadays dislike the GOP and the people who support it with duplicate feelings for Democrats by Republicans. Consequence: lawmakers are influenced accordingly and thereby typically won’t compromise.
When Newt Gingrich became House Speaker in 1995, he eagerly sought many changes to the institution that had been dominated by Democrats for 40 years. One big change was to discourage new House members from locating in Washington, D.C. That proximity of location, in the past, resulted in more Republicans and their families getting to know Democrats and their families while the House leader altered the calendar so that most work got done midweek, allowing members to fly conveniently in and out from their respective districts. The U.S. Senate now resembles the House.
Other trends include politicians working the phones for dollars rather than developing social relationships while they think and worry about not being partisan or ideological enough to satisfy constituents, adhering thereby to their party’s purest story line. World War II united Americans but the Cold War, and now dove versus hawk, further divides the electorate and office-holders. Then, too, but not necessarily a complete list of trends, is the fact that the generations now in charge had their political instincts shaped by the internal American culture war that got underway in the 1960s.
A resolution to work better together does not appear likely in the immediate future as we Americans seem more inclined to metaphorically race from one side of the Titanic to the other with few willing to reflect on a middle of “ship” passage. Some among us have concluded that democracy in a nation as large and diverse as America’s is simply impossible and thereby we drift more and more into “strong man” leadership to embrace an autocracy. It will be possible to preserve our Constitution, our freedoms, our way of life, and our institutions and norms only if the people of the U.S. demand it. An autocracy should be better known here as it means an end to our way of life and, with high predictability, one most citizens will regret.
(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)