Polarization Getting the Best of Us

Member Group : Nathan Shrader

Watching the prelude, debate, and aftermath of the federal health insurance reform fight has been as painful as slamming your hand in the car door or watching the Pirates try to convince their few remaining fans that they will field a semi-competitive baseball club this season. Unfortunately, the Pirates discussion is coming in next week’s baseball season preview column, so right now we’re stuck with health care talk.

Regardless of where you come down on the health care issue, there are two areas where we must reach some consensus: the need for a no-nonsense look at the way we approach political issues in this country and the dishonesty of politicians who outlandishly claim to speak on behalf of "the American people."

Back in late 2007 conservative pundit Cal Thomas and liberal strategist Bob Beckel co-authored a book called Common Ground which attempted to demonstrate that political polarization as it stood leading up to the 2008 presidential election was waning. They predicted that a moment of clarity among the American public was coming. This moment, according to the authors, would demand more than settling for the right and left skirmishing over focus-group tested sound bites and boilerplate rhetorical talking points. Unfortunately, that moment—if it ever actually arrived—has been brutally murdered at a crime scene worthy of a Law and Order episode.

On the first point, the quality of political discourse in America today is absolutely disgraceful. Democrats attack Republicans who opposed federal health insurance reform as not caring about the poor and those presently lacking access to health care coverage. Republicans attack Democrats who supported the measure as being "socialists" hell-bent on destroying the country while conveniently ignoring the fact that their own party, under President G.W. Bush, rammed through (to use a worn out John Boehner gem) a Medicare prescription drug benefit program in 2003 over Democratic objections that has cost hundreds of millions more than promised.

Secondly, the way that pols from both sides claimed to "stand with the American people" during the health care debate is fraudulent. Four days after the passage of the health care legislation, Congressman Jeff Flake told Jim Lehrer that Republicans will stand with the people and repeal the health insurance reforms. During the floor debate in Congress on March 21, a multitude of Democratic legislators claimed to be "on the side of the American people" and in support of the bill. Unfortunately, both only represent a chunk of the American people, not all of them.

It is high time that the left and right stop trying to trump the other by suggesting that their position is the only true sentiment of the American public. Jack Lemon had a brilliant line during his role as an ex-president in the mid-90s comedy My Fellow Americans. A backwoods rube character told Lemon that the problem with Washington is politicians who don’t listen to the voice of the people. Lemon responded by telling him that the whole idea of the "voice of the people" is a myth. Instead, said Lemon, are 300 million voices all shouting something different and expecting their wishes to be carried out.

Politicians and party operatives who claim to represent the singular "will of the people" need to have their heads examined. The proverbial will of the people changes based upon what day the polls are taken, how the questions are asked, the accent of the person asking the questions, and whether respondents are telling the truth. The accurate will of the people is reflected on Election Day with the inevitability of winners and losers. Those who are elected then make public policy based upon their understanding of the facts and the national interest. The Democrats who supported health care reform spoke on behalf of a significant chunk of the American people as did the Republicans who opposed it.

Both sides are guilty of suggesting that their position should prevail simply because it is the most popular at that moment. Simply put, governing by polls is a recipe for disaster and the over-reliance on polls and public opinion by both parties in recent weeks should worry all of us.

Hearing self-proclaimed conservative Republicans rise on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and suggest that public policy be made based upon the day’s polling numbers is enough to make real conservatives—assuming that any remain—weep with remorse. They must not recall the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, who two and a quarter centuries ago noted that public opinion should serve not as a mandate for legislators but instead as one of many factors contributing to decision making.

As an equal criticism, hearing Democrats like Nancy Pelosi dismiss legitimate Republican objections over the programmatic questions regarding the unavoidable bureaucracy and enlarged governmental role in managing the new health care regulations is detrimental to the process and highly arrogant. Obviously, both sides must do better when it comes to dealing in reality.

Over the last several months from last summer’s uncivil, rage-filled town hall meetings to the shattered windows of certain lawmaker’s offices last week, we citizens ought to raise ourselves above such over-the-top rhetoric and the employment of misleading language about what it means to "stand with the American people" and reach for the common ground that Beckel and Thomas saw on the horizon just over two years ago.

Rather than firing up the rhetorical machine for repeal of a certain bill or getting revenge on those who voted in the position opposite of our own, perhaps we all should think first of repairing our broken public discourse and illegitimate claims to representing the entirety of the American public.