The following op-ed appeared in the Shawano Leader on January 22nd. Here it is if you don’t get the paper.
Polarization Leaves Parties Feeling the Chill
Politics used to be a subject that was avoided when speaking with friends and acquaintances. Now many of us have taken sides and talk about it freely with those who agree with us. At the same time, we refuse to listen to those who oppose our views.
There are many reasons for our polarization. Social media has put us in our own comfortable bubble. Just like advertisers that want our business, the internet tracks our clicks and gives us information that we agree with even though it may be misinformation.
Our different views about the present political environment might cause us to “unfriend” people on Facebook who we once communicated with. We may find ourselves less eager to argue our viewpoints because of the resistance of what we think is rational thought on the other side.
“Right” and “left” are the terms referring to the polar opposites on the political spectrum. The terms were coined in France in 1789 when The French Revolution was gaining steam. As an angry mob stormed the Bastille the assembly debated on how much power the king should have. Those who thought the king should have an absolute veto power sat on the right of the president of the assembly. Those who thought the king should not (a more radical view) sat on the left. In other words, those who wanted to be closer to tradition were on the right, and those who wanted more change were on the left.
Today we use the term conservative for those on the right and liberal for those on the left. Today’s Republicans hold conservative views. President Teddy Roosevelt was once a Republican but in 1912 formed a third party called The Progressive Party. Today progressive ideas are primarily held by the Democratic Party.
By the 1920’s the pro-business, anti-worker orientation of the Republican Party was set. This faction of the party fought against child labor laws, the right to organize, minimum wage laws, and worker safety protections.
African-American rights have been suppressed since the Civil War.
Unfortunately, the racism of the southern Republicans continues to this day as evidenced by the voter suppression efforts in Georgia. It is a cancer that we all must try to squelch as we strive to be more inclusive.
The Social Conservative Republicans have seen themselves as being on a “Holy” mission. They have had the notion that religion and policy shouldn’t be separate. Unfortunately, their efforts have closed numerous Planned Parenthood clinics who offered health services to many women who could not afford prenatal health care.
Democrats appear to be more humane and sensible. They hold beliefs that are held by the majority of Americans. For years they have been fighting for desperately needed health care reform, environmental protections and public education and public schools. The majority of progressives today see the need for a wealth tax, green jobs and infrastructure, student-loan forgiveness, equal access to broadband Internet for rural areas and poor neighborhoods, and universal basic income.
At this moment in history, it is less about Conservatives versus Liberals. It is more about those who believe in democracy and those who are killing it by their actions, by their silence. Today there is an embrace of conspiracy and disinformation which is amounting to a “more radicalization” of Americans and increased risk of right-wing violence.
According to Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw terrorist cases, millions of conservatives are buying into baseless right-wing claims. Unfortunately, the line between mainstream and fringe thinking is vanishing. Right wing news outlets and social media networks are spewing their “own” truth.
Trump aligned himself with the Republican Party when he sought the presidency. He has carved out his own base of supporters who appear to believe whatever he says.
Representative Jackie Speier, who survived the 1978 Jim Jones Jonestown massacre, reported in The Daily Beast that she sees the domination of Trump over the Republican Party as clearly similar to the People Temple, where followers feared they would be cast out for challenging the cult leader. “Community had become their family” Speier said, “and like the Republicans who think the election was filled with fraud, those that had some sense of independence couldn’t express it. Once you get into something like this, even if you know it’s not right, you stay there, you’re transfixed.”
Some political observers label Trump’s ideology as Trumpism. Trump’s political movement has been set on keeping power for himself and maintaining his political base of followers. In doing so however, he has caused the dismantling of the Republican party along with democratic backsliding. This gradual decline in the quality of democracy has also caused the debilitation of democratic institutions from within.
Adherence to the Constitution has been a hallmark of the Republican Party. However, even though President -Elect Biden’s clear victory was the most secure election in our history, the results were continually challenged by Trump and those who would throw out the Constitution to appease him. But those with courage did their Constitutional duty. Bi-partisan congressional members voted to impeach Trump whose false rhetoric incited an angry mob to attack our Capitol.
Even with the divides that exist today, our country can be healed. Our friendships can be restored. By seeking the truth, we can begin to understand one another and face the challenges ahead together.