Today, America goes to the polls. Mercifully, nearly two years of incessant campaign coverage (including nearly 30 presidential debates in total) will come to an end, assuming no last-minute recounts or hijinks. But barring a surprise wave election, in which one of the two major parties suffers massive defeats in the presidential race as well as in both houses of Congress, our bipartisan gridlock is likely to continue.
That even the apportionment of blame for this sad state of affairs is hotly debated is proof positive of the lengths to which we’ve entangled ourselves into partisan herds. Republican obstinacy faces off against Democratic radicalism in the eyes of their respective adherents. Most problematically, one of the few remaining points of bipartisan coordination is seen in the increasing trend towards ideological rigidity – on both sides.
I have seen this in my own relationship to the political sphere over the last four years. In 2008, I was an undergraduate student voting, without overwhelming enthusiasm, for Barack Obama. I was never able to locate in myself the passionate embrace of the Illinois senator that had so enraptured many of my peers. I respected John McCain and would not have been severely disappointed had he won.
Four years later, I admit to frequent panic at the thought of a Mitt Romney presidency. My discomfort with the Republican platform has morphed into a visceral disgust for most of its standard-bearers. I mock the minor gaffes committed by the tireless tag-team of Romney and Paul Ryan while largely excusing Obama’s as mere faux pas. I deride the elitism of Romney’s “47%” commentary while allowing Obama’s mention of “[clinging] to guns and religion” to fade into the past.
To be clear, I am not peddling false equivalency. Anyone who has followed my blog on a casual basis for the past several months would have little doubt as to where I lay the vast majority of the blame for the current state of American politics. But my mounting distaste for Republican policy and rhetoric has perceptibly nudged me further in the opposite direction. My own views have solidified, less the result of conducting painstaking research and more a visceral reaction to what I viewed as inflammatory and bitter actions from my ideological opposites.
It seems clear that this division is infecting all aspects of our political culture. Mitt Romney has been downright evasive regarding the release of his tax returns, but Harry Reid’s absurd claim that Romney may not have paid any taxes at all for a decade was greeted with cheers by many on the left. Would this have happened before: a party so decrying the missteps of its opponents that it gleefully fights unreasonableness with rhetorical extremism of its own?
A similar vortex has swallowed the debate over national healthcare. When Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act devolved into absolutist obstructionism without any hint of compromise, many of us (including myself) gradually moved from cautious support of the bill to full-throated endorsement. Unfortunately, a real debate is sorely needed to determine what exactly can reduce the skyrocketing costs associated with healthcare coverage in this country. But the decision by one party to halt all discussions need not be met with equivalent foot-stomping by its counterparts.
How, then, should we respond? And by “we” I refer not only to liberals and others who share my dismal outlook on the collective Republican identity: I include also Republicans whose own more sensible positions have shifted slowly rightward under the rising pressure of a red-vs.-blue war. If the opposing party is truly as denialist or radical or obstinate as we believe, what options do we have?
On a practical level, there may be little that can be achieved. But ratcheting down hyperbolism and the most abrasive rhetoric will certainly help. Whatever competitive advantage the expression of vitriol may once have facilitated in shaping public perception has certainly evaporated in the face of equally irate counterattacks.
More crucially, detaching ourselves from the entrenched binary mentality that handcuffs us to our respective parties will allow us to reevaluate our elected leaders from a more clear-headed standpoint. All too often, a unified and angry opposition has compelled many of us to move from a mild preference for a certain party platform to an enthusiastic embrace of even its more dubious propositions – including policies that we once opposed.
This is how, for example, President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program was rightly castigated by liberals as an existential threat to the public’s constitutional freedoms, while Barack Obama’s extrajudicial assassination of American citizens has prompted little more than muted protests. It’s how many Democrats scoffed at Bush’s muscular use of drones while praising Obama’s decision to then ramp up the rate of drone strikes.
As liberals, our primary responsibility is to a set of ideals, not to a thoroughly vetted, compromised, and stripped-down document attempting to represent the broad tent that is the Democratic Party. Conservatives, too, must remember that their own principles of lean government and open markets should trump the narrow interests of a Republican Party still beholden to the incoherence of Tea Party demagogues and xenophobic agitators.
For the next four years, regardless of who wins tonight, my goal is to avoid the reflexive castigation of conservative proposals that has steadily crept into my decision-making process. A nation with two healthy parties is a far stronger one than a nation with none. But it’s up to all of us to subject our ideological compatriots to the same degree of thoughtful critique as we extend to our political opposites.