The Downward Path of Toxic Partisanship
Every time it seems like we’ve reached maximum partisanship, when the parties couldn’t distrust each other more and it seems like our system is on the brink of becoming unworkable, it always seems to get worse.
That’s my immediate takeaway from listening to the January 26, 2001 episode of This American Life that investigated the reaction to the 2001 election and the resulting Supreme Court case that gave George W. Bush the presidency. The show examines the election through a couple of different lenses including a look at the buildup of the Republican electoral machine, differing political views within a marriage and different legal opinions on the ensuring case.
In the opening, host Ira Glass conducted a quick interview with World War II veteran Robert Brown about how vitriolic politics was getting:
Ira Glass:Do you think politics are getting more bitter?
Robert Brown: Oh yes. Terribly so.
Ira Glass: And is that a bad thing? Is that worrisome?
Robert Brown: Very worrisome to me. I don’t know where it’s going to end. Fortunately, I don’t have to see too much more of it. You do. You’ll have to see a lot of it
If you showed me that interview today, I would have assumed it was conducted yesterday.
Following that, David Brock, the eventual founder of Media Matters for America, discussed the extreme attempts Republican organizations went to try to dig up dirt on President Clinton. Here’s Brock:
The radical right wasn’t pretending to be outraged at Clinton for dramatic effect; the rage was real, even when they knew they were stretching the facts to make their case.
The Republicans saw their subsequent failure to remove Clinton from office as a historic defeat, but they didn’t blame themselves. In their minds, they had simply been outmaneuvered by the oily Clinton-Gore spin machine, tricky lawyers, and the liberal-leaning media. And they would do everything they could to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again.
Just replace Clinton’s name with Obama and that statement still rings as true today as it did in the 1990s. Brock continues on to discuss how any court case that went against Bush was considered “partisan and illegitimate” by Republican strategists. Newt Gingrich was a radical, right-wing legislator leading the charge against Clinton and Gore. Now, he’s a Republican host on CNN’s Crossfire. He’s no longer as partisan as was during the 1990s, but the fact that he is now considered the moderate wing of the Republican Party is incredible.
Ira Glass points out that even after the Supreme Court delivered its verdict, 40% of Americans still did not believe that Bush was the legitimate president. This was after an election in which Gore won the popular vote and required a Supreme Court case to decide. After this past election, which President Obama won easily with almost five million more votes and 332 electoral votes, almost half of Republican voters think that ACORN stole the election. This was a big victory for Democrats that no serious Republican would debate, yet nearly half of Republican voters doubt its validity! A quarter of them wanted their state to secede from the union.
The entire show was built upon the idea of how nasty and partisan politics has become. Yet, it has become much worse. Distrust between congressional leaders hit a new low this week. Polarization in Congress is at record levels. It’s amazing really. No matter how ugly it gets, our two parties can always find a way to get uglier.