PITTSFIELD — “Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad-peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America,” said then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
In a time of unprecedented political division in the country, former President Obama’s breakout speech from over a decade ago seems particularly pertinent, even if it describes a political unity and era of hope the former president himself was unable to achieve in his two terms in office. In it, he notes how the pundits like to “slice and dice” the country into red and blue states — “red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.” Social media has taken party identities to the extreme, creating separate online realities and frames in which to view the world through the use of content algorithms that ensure only media you engage with consistently appears in your feed, creating virtual echo chambers.
The notion of hard-right and hard-left political identities in America is a direct product of the duopoly of political ideals the two major parties have. They are broad, social constructs, whose main purpose is to inspire loyalty to party — right for Republicans, left for Democrats. In their own right, they lay claim to a wide spectrum of ideas, identities and worldviews, and they make binary a country that is far from it. They are institutions with little oversight, who get to make their own rules, and have a great deal of influence over who has a fighting chance of running for office.
As such, it’s impossible to not talk about the divisiveness in this country without mentioning our partisan duopoly, and the corrosive nature it has on democracy. I think back to George Washington’s warning against parties in his presidential farewell address more than 200 years ago:
“[Parties] serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community. ... [The spirit of party] 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.”
It’s eerie how faithfully Washington describes the division America’s political parties have created in 2020. His warning of how harmful government access through “channels of party passions” is particularly relevant to today’s campaign finance laws, in which wealthy campaign donors can engender loyalty through the almighty dollar.
Political division is an existential threat to any nation; it’s the literal cause of civil war. It breaks down civil discourse and diplomacy, which are foundational to a functioning government, something I can’t faithfully say America has, especially amid the nation’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans and Democrats refuse to work with each other, resulting more often than not in gridlock.
“No matter who was put in charge, things didn’t get better,” former Congressman Mickey Edwards wrote in an excellent 2011 piece in The Atlantic about political division. “They won’t this time, either; spending levels may go down, taxes may go up, budgets will change, but American government will go on the way it has, not as a collective enterprise but as a battle between warring tribes.”
This loyalty to faction has sabotaged the nation, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, which demands nonpartisan cooperation to overcome. Instead, divisions have deepened, resulting in boiling tempers that, in some cases ,have resulted in violence.
“Acknowledging the deranging effects of this polarizing climate does not absolve anyone of responsibility — in fact, it tasks us all with fighting it,” reads a recent Eagle editorial. “No one who fans the flames of this incendiary national moment is blameless — whether it’s the president or a protester-turned-rioter or a neighbor with a political ax to grind. We the people, as individuals and as a community, all have a patriotic duty: When faced with this division, we must resist giving in to it.”
That’s a tall order, and it involves looking critically at the narratives both political parties, televised media and the internet gives to us — to resist the urge to blindly accept information presented to us and to ask first where it came from, if the source is legitimate, and if it has an agenda it’s trying to push. It demands that we practice news literacy in all media we engage with, and to resist the call of demagogues.
It also requires that we recognize the source of our division and the harmful effects of partisan duopoly.