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Making sense out of the Age of Division

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Opinions


ILLUSTRATION BY Lenny Schnier/The Hoot

Five and a half years ago, a then little-known state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama declared at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that, “There is no red America, there is no blue America—there is only the United States of America.” Despite his soaring rhetoric, Obama, after one year into his presidency, has failed to truly foster a spirit of bipartisanship. On the contrary, the current administration has only exacerbated and increased the visibility of the schisms that linger over our country’s politics.

Initially, this may not seem to be the case. From an objective standpoint, the Obama administration’s policies have been extraordinarily centrist and pragmatic. In its current state, Obama’s health care bill bears a semblance to the Massachusetts Plan passed under Republican Governor Mitt Romney: one third of his stimulus bill includes tax cuts normally favored by conservatives; his financial regulatory plan as well as his cap-and-trade bill do relatively little to harm corporations and are more or less sympathetic to them; his recently-declared spending freeze is a sign of his commitment to fiscal discipline; and he has sent thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, an action that has found much support amongst Republicans and skepticism from Democrats.

However, the irony is that this supposedly un-ideological approach has left the country bitterly divided because it has alienated both sides of the political spectrum. At the outset of the current administration, the left eagerly supported the new president. When Obama began compromising with centrists and moderate Republicans, they knew that such tactical behavior was necessary for the passage of crucial legislation, such as the stimulus package. However, as time wore on, Obama either abandoned or postponed focusing on traditional causes associated with liberalism, such as a single-payer health care system—or at least a public option—and the repealing of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The disillusioned left-leaning electorate, though still eager to support Obama, especially in contrast to the demonized GOP, has lost a great deal of enthusiasm. In its current state, Leftists are far less inclined to donate, volunteer, or simply go to the polls for his future campaigns or Congressional ones than it was in 2008.

Conversely, the right has made the political calculation that they have nothing to lose by resorting to pure, unadulterated obstructionism. As mentioned before, there is much in Obama’s initiatives, such as tax cuts and business-friendly regulations, which the Republicans, under normal circumstances, would support. Yet the right has little incentive to cooperate, because if the Democrats’ plans fail, the blame, as proven by the 1994 elections, falls squarely on their shoulders. This strategy is manifested in their unprecedented use of the filibuster, holds, and other arcane parliamentary rules that serve as the plaque that clogs the arteries of the legislative circulatory system.

Of course, no mention of the GOP is complete without discussion of the Tea Party movement. This libertarian-leading crowd is not the first of its kind; this country has a long history of extreme right wing associations, from the John Birch Society to the Ku Klux Klan. However, the Tea Partiers have produced a Dede Scozzafava effect. Republicans are afraid of conservative primary challenges, and as a result, have become even more averse to bipartisanship on any significant issue. This dynamic is currently being reproduced in the Florida senate race between Governor Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican, at least at heart, and Marco Rubio, who has effectively used his opponent’s conciliatory inclinations to his advantage.

One can argue that Washington has always been intractably ultra-partisan. Yet, this is certainly among the first periods in our history where nearly every single major initiative, even if it is centrist and seemingly uncontroversial, has passed through party line votes. At the same time, very few individuals, both on Capitol Hill and in the electorate, are perfectly content with the current state of affairs. The left feels disenchanted, with many of their progressive hopes dashed for the moment, while the right eagerly waits for those in power to fail as they scream “tax cuts” and “socialism” all along the way.

In response, Obama ought to rekindle the spark that made his 2008 campaign as epic and transformative as it was. A GOP concerned with tea-party-supported primary challenges will never support him. In regards to centrist Democrats, a rising tide of legislative success hopefully will lift all blue boats. In addition, the post-partisan shtick of un-ideological centrism that only produces even more partisanship, ought to go; if you can’t beat Washington’s ways, join them. Until then, the status quo persists, as our political leaders remain ensconced in this Age of Division.