If you listen to some of the U.S. presidential candidates – especially on the republican side – you could be convinced that the United States is at risk of being overrun by illegal immigrants or terrorists, losing its superior military position in the world, degrading morals beyond all redemption, falling into another devastating economic recession, or having our guns taken away. That is not the peril to which I am referring. Most of that is fear mongering which serves the purpose of scaring the electorate into voting for the candidate who they feel can best address those risks. In most cases, it’s the candidate who speaks most frequently about the risks that is thought to be the authority on the subject – whether that is warranted or not. In politics, repetition sells.
I’m talking about a much more insidious threat – the fear of compromise in politics which now seems to be coming part of the fabric of this country.
There have always been differences of opinion about how best to approach various situations. That is especially true in economics where, even when there is strong evidence pointing to a specific solution, long-held opinions are not often changed. When it comes to how best to help the less privileged, the approaches are very different. The liberal case is that some people need extra financial or other help – a social safety net – and the funds to construct that net should come mostly from those privileged individuals with high income. The conservative view is that all people are helped when businesses are allowed to thrive, so the best way to help the less fortunate is to allow them to have a choice of jobs by removing regulation and other barriers that hobble businesses. One of those barriers is a high income tax rate for high earners which leaves less money for the business owners to create those jobs.
What I didn’t mention is the compromise position in which all sides work together to develop a complete program of education and tax reform, long-term planning to remove uncertainty, a review of regulation and a targeted social safety net for those who fall through the cracks. The cooperation that would be needed to construct an integrated system like this just doesn’t exist in Washington these days. I am a moderate and I would very much like to see bipartisanship and the fruits that would result from those efforts.
There is a very good reason why cooperation may get worse before it gets better – gerrymandered congressional districts. The practice of drawing congressional districts to benefit one party over the other goes back to 1788 in Virginia in which Governor Patrick Henry convinced the legislature to redraw the 5th district to disadvantage political adversary James Madison. The term gerrymander came from the federalist-leaning Boston Gazette which combined the surname of Governor Elbridge Gerry and the shape of a newly drawn district in Essex County that resembled a salamander.
If a state leans democratic as a whole, for example, and the democrats are in the majority in the state legislature, they may choose to draw districts in such a way that each district is comprised of 53% democratic voters. In that way, it is likely that more democrats will be elected to the House of Representatives than republicans. Note that whoever is elected in this situation is more likely to be a centrist because that candidate needs to appeal to members of both parties.
If the districts are drawn in a different way, you end up with representatives on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The districts could be drawn so a majority of them have 65% democratic voters and a minority have 65% republican voters. To win these races, the candidates would need to appeal more to the extremes in their political parties – strongly liberal and strongly conservative.
There have been many cases of redrawing districts to carve out safe conservative or safe liberal seats perpetrated by both parties in state government, and some strangely shaped congressional districts have been the result. The congressmen and women like these safe seats because this system offers the chance to become a career politician rather than serving one or two terms and losing to someone from the other party when a popular presidential candidate brings out more voters than usually participate in an election. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a partisan House of Representatives in which compromise is almost never achieved.
Not only is compromise elusive, rhetoric is getting mean. For many congressmen and women, the only challengers who may beat them come from their own party and often have more extreme views. Members of Congress show how conservative or liberal they are when they speak on the House floor or speak to reporters and those speeches and interviews are often laced with insults and derision for their colleagues and others whom they feel are not worthy. For many of these Representatives, that derision can be directed toward the American people who do not share your views. Liberals have attacked the super rich and conservatives have attacked welfare mothers.
That is the real peril for the United States – we are becoming a country of “us” versus “them.” This conflict is reinforced by political pundits and shouted out of our televisions and radios. I have often wondered if we human beings are programmed to destroy each other. The frequency, and sometimes duration, of wars throughout history is pretty impressive. It’s possible that our willingness to fight each other is a natural selection-honed instinct that strengthens the herd by killing off the weak. Modern weaponry has changed the equation, especially with the advent of nuclear weapons.
I’m not 100% sure of this, but I would bet good money that we are living in the longest period without a major war – that is, one that affects a large portion of the population – since the development of the first city-states. We can thank nuclear weapons for that. (You rarely find people expressing their thanks for nuclear weapons, do you?) But now, our natural instincts may be looking for that fight, and we’re identifying the Americans who are not like us as the enemy.
Donald Trump is a genius at tapping into this fight instinct and he has redirected it. His supporters accept his claims without question, or at least without feeling that they need to verify the facts, and turn that need to fight against the targets he gives them. Mexicans, Muslims, the other presidential candidates. He makes a claim and his supporters embrace it. He is actually bringing the “us” and “them” Americans closer together while they focus on the outside enemy. Pure genius.
I don’t know how long this coming together can last, however. After the presidential election, we will still have a very partisan House of Representatives and the rhetoric will continue. When two separate set of ideas – let’s call them theologies – exist within one nation, conflicts will inevitably arise. We’re seeing some of that now. The “We are the 99%” movement has been replaced by the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations. The “us” versus “them” scenario seemed pretty obvious to me when affluent white middle age men started saying “All lives matter.” To me, that seemed like a way of discounting the other side.
Why do I call this a peril? Do you remember the ISIS capture of Ramadi last May. In the Western media it was portrayed as a failure of the Iraqi military forces because they abandoned their weapons and retreated. They offered little resistance to the ISIS fighters. Why? Poor training? Ineffective command? There is another more compelling reason. The Iraqi forces are largely Shiite and Ramadi is a largely Sunni city. There is such long running animosity between Shiite and Sunni that the military personnel may have had a different perspective than we Westerners can imagine. Perhaps it wasn’t considered to be a conflict between Iraq and ISIS, but rather another in a long line of Sunni-Shiite conflicts. The soldiers may simply have decided that they were not going to risk their lives to save a Sunni city, so they left.
If the American “us” versus “them” rhetoric continues, we may end up fighting ourselves and that could get ugly. There’s a little of that going on right now in Burns, Oregon, with the armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge. Let’s not forget the anger in the African-American community whenever a black person dies at the hands of the police. Things are simmering right now and they could boil over if we’re not careful.
As Donald Trump has so brilliantly done, we need a common enemy to bring us together. Perhaps that enemy could be opioid addiction or gun violence in Chicago. There are many choices for enemies we could attack together and come out of it a better country.
Finally, I would like to point to a community that put their differences aside and worked and worshipped together. The often violent Sunni-Shiite rift has been going on for many centuries and on numerous occasions, one side has committed atrocities against the other. That is in fact what is happening today in Syria and Yemen. But in one country, the two religious sects have worshipped together peacefully for many years – the United States. The 300,000 or so Muslims in this country are a shining example of how people with different beliefs can coexist in peace and harmony.