Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Political Mitosis in America

No, you are not looking at some bacteria or paramecia under a microscope.

You are looking at a graphic representation of the fracturing of the American political spectrum into irreconcilable factions, 'political mitosis', if you will, of the very factions and party fortresses George Washington warned us about in his final address to the nation in 1796 after 2 terms as our only unanimously-elected President of the United States of America*

The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the US Congress is a study you might want to read especially if you are of the research bent looking for facts and figures done by academics who do these sorts of things.

Why bring this up anyway?

We were speaking with some folk of different political persuasions over the past week and wondering if, during the Obama Administration for the past 6 years, we are any closer to each other in terms of race relations, budget balance and sanity, national debt reduction, feeling collectively safer under our foreign policy; solving any environmental or energy issues or making progress on creating millions of new jobs for the people who want and need those new jobs...or not.

Some people tried to say that the President had done a good job...under the circumstances, meaning mostly that he was dealt a bad hand when he took office and the economy was in the tank. You can decide for yourself whether or not President Obama has been a 'uniter, not a divider' as President Bush said he wanted to be before him.

As much as we Americans like to dream that our President, whoever it may be at the time, is supposed to be our shining light example of virtue, honor and The American Way, the truth of the matter is that he is not the Pope of the Catholic Church, nor should we ever want our President to be so.

Being President of the United States is perhaps the toughest job on Planet Earth. Maybe James Madison knew that when he comtemplated the possibility of a Triumvirate US Presidency where 3 people would share power as they did in Roman days, or, as another idea that (thankfully) failed, setting up the Supreme Court to be some sort of counsel to the single President that could or approve of his policies he set forth.

Despite our differences, however, on the efficacy and job performance of this President, President Obama over the past 6 years, almost everyone pointed to the hyper-partisanship that is out there in almost every political race nowadays from the US Senate to Congress to the state legislatures to the municipal seats and down to even the local school boards.

Let's face it: We are perhaps more polarized than at any time since the Civil War.

For good reason. Which we will return to in a moment.

Take a look at the scattergrams noted above in this academic report. Going back to 1947, there sure was a lot of 'blue', denoting Democrat control of the US Congress and US Senate in Washington.

That held true until the cataclysmic elections of 1994 where the Republicans under Newt Gingrich completed a process he started in 1978 to wrest back control from the Democrats for the first time since the days of Speaker Joe Martin from 1952 to 1954.

You can see from the scattergrams that the Congress cleaved into 2 distinct camps, one red and one blue with each becoming more red and more blue with each successive election cycle since 1994.

Don't let the 'blueness' of the scattergrams confuse you. One reason why there seemed to be more cooperation in the years leading up to 1994 was that there were close to a hundred Southern Democrats in the US House who were counted as 'blue' for representational purposes but who, in effect, were center-right voters on issues, not center-left to way-left-of-center as the majority of House Democrats are today.

One thing that has happened since 1994 that has contributed mightily to the collapse of consensus has been the almost complete eradication of two species of political elected animal: White Male Southern Democrats and Liberal to Moderate Republicans Anywhere.

In 1981 when Ronald Reagan took office, there were 91 white male Southern Democrats in the US House. They were mostly fiscal conservatives who held the line on spending; didn't like to raise taxes but would if a good deal came their way on agriculture subsidies for tobacco, cotton or peanuts, for example or defense; and were more inclined to not take too visible or active of a position on the social issues brewing of the day such as abortion.

This year in Congress, there may be 2 white male Southern Democrats left in office. The rest of them have either been defeated by more liberal Democrats in the primaries; they have converted to the Republican Party or they have retired or passed on to the Great Beyond.

On the other hand, liberal-to-moderate Republicans such as Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon have been defeated in primaries by more conservative Republicans or they have converted to become a Democrat as Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont somewhat infamously did in 2002 or they too have retired or passed away.

Many voters in either the Southern Democrat or liberal-to-moderate Republican camp, those who tend to be fiscally conservative and more libertarian in social policy, have resigned their membership in either party and have willfully elected to register as Unaffiliated or vote as an Independent in the states where they can register as such, North Carolina being a prime example. Close to 30% of all officially registered voters in North Carolina are Unaffiliated and, as many say, 'proudly NOT a Democrat OR a Republican!'

What is going to fix this hyper-partisanship?

For one thing, better leaders who are equipped to lead by reason, facts and compromise would help. Our Founding Fathers were some of the most partisan people we have ever had in elective office, bar none. Thomas Jefferson hated the concentrated federalist ideals of Alexander Hamilton for example, which Hamilton reciprocated back towards Jefferson for his, as Hamilton would have said, unrealistic notions of a peaceful agrarian society.

Then-sitting Vice-President Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel in Weehauken, New Jersey in 1804 and mortally wounded him over personal and political differences and matters of gentlemanly behavior back then. That would be like then-sitting Vice President Dick Cheney challenging then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to a duel with shotguns at 20 paces in 2007, which, come to think about it, does not seem as far-fetched as it should.

The Founders and many of our previous elected great leaders all knew how to debate and compromise, even when they completely disagreed with one another on basic policy issues. That is what current activists and politicians on both ends have failed to learn from their example in history.

So what is the main reason for this inflexibility and when will it end?

We have always encouraged people interested in this subject to read a seminal work on generational characteristics and attributes, 'Generations' by Neil Howe and William Strauss.

Bill Strauss was an original member of the comedy troupe 'Capitol Steps' you may have heard of in the past if you have ever been around Washington DC for any length of time.

Neil Howe worked on the Pete Peterson effort to reform entitlements and used to come by the congressional office of former Congressman Alex McMillan with whom I worked on a regular basis as we tackled such issues on the House Budget Committee and President Bill Clinton's Entitlement and Tax Reform Commission of 1994.

The sub-title of the book is haunting: 'The History of America's Future 1584-2069'. It is 'haunting' in the sense that almost everything Neil and Bill wrote about the impasses we would face politically in 1991 has come true over the past 24 years now, and counting.

It is 'doubly haunting' because Neil wrote a note on the first page to our 3 sons, the last who was about to be born at the time, which said this:
'Hope you Millennials will save us from ourselves'

Hope they do too.

The bottom-line of Strauss and Howe's book?

Their premise is that American generations have gone through 4 very distinct character traits starting with the Puritan idealism of 1584 when they landed in the New World.

The cycles have been repeated 5 times now and they always go in the same order: 1) Idealist; 2) Reactive (to the idealism of the preceding generation); 3) Civic and 4) Adaptive.

The Idealist Generations are the ones who cause so much trouble in American history, mainly because they are so idealistic about everything it seems. The Transcendental Movement of the early 19th century, for example, led to the abolitionist movement to end slavery, for good reasons. However, there were people on the other side who were equally as passionate about their opposition to the end of slavery and, of course, we all know that led to the Great Civil War in which more Americans died on either side, 600,000 to 1 million, Yankee or Rebel, than in all the other wars combined in American history. By far.

Neil and Bill said that we were in the same Idealist cycle whereby the Flower Power Children of the '60s who were born in the largest baby cohort ever in American history, the Baby Boomers post-World War II, would grow up one day and run for political office and start and run businesses and law firms and hospitals.

And they would maintain that same sense of 'idealism' they nurtured in their youth such that they 'could not see where anyone could possibly disagree with them!' and 'there was certainly no room for compromise!'

Sound familiar?

We don't need to look very far to see where the idealist character traits of older Baby Boomers has taken the United States of America, do we? $18 trillion+ national debt and still growing by leaps and bounds; a stagnant economy where minimal job growth each month is hailed as some sort of 'success' (sic); no consensus on energy or environmental policy; a deterioration of race relations as exemplified by the Baltimore riots, impassioned debates over social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the list could go on and on and on.

Do we have to wait until every aging Baby Boomer dies before we can see any progress again on compromising for the common good? Or will we hold steadfast on our purity and stakes and principles like both sides did before the guns were fired on Fort Sumter 154 years ago?

Read Generations when you get a chance. It will open your eyes to the deep-seated problems we face in a way you may not have considered before.

*(more complete quote) 'I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume'

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