It has become conventional wisdom to say that politics has become more divisive today than ever before in American history, and that this divisiveness is a threat to democracy, an affront to civilized society, and generally a bad thing all around.
But are these propositions true? Is American politics more divisive today than in the past? And if so, is that such a bad thing?
Those questions came to mind during a recent visit to the U.S. Capitol. One of the highlights of my tour was a visit to the chamber of the House of Representatives, where I heard an account of a shooting that took place there on March 1, 1954. People we would now call "terrorists," who wanted Puerto Rican independence from the United States, opened fire with automatic pistols and wounded five congressmen. The bullet holes are still plainly visible in the House chamber.
Now, the debate over healthcare reform has been heated, but I don't remember anyone pulling out any weapons.
Here's another anecdote: Though the United States declared independence in 1776, it took our young nation 11 years---until 1788---to ratify the Constitution. One of the main sticking points was what to call what became the office the president. The colonies were united in their disdain for kings, but without some central power, cooperation between the newly formed states---especially the economic cooperation needed to ensure survival of the new republic---was breaking down. So determining the role and title of this executive office was a huge issue. John Adams reported in his journals and letters that even after they decided on the duties of this office, it took days longer to come up with the name "president."
And then there is the famous Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel of July 11, 1804. Burr was the sitting vice president when he shot and killed Hamilton, a former secretary of the Treasury. Burr fled briefly to South Carolina to escape criminal charges, but he ultimately came back to Washington to finish out his term.
Of course, these are just anecdotes, but they do indicate that what we're seeing today, by historical standards, is not all that rough and tough.
Now let's look at whether divisive politics is all that bad. To make a determination, it's helpful to remember that this usually comes up when we're debating the great issues of our day: abortion, national defense, and---most recently---an economic crisis and the reform of healthcare. The debates over these issues have indeed been divisive. But again, is that such a bad thing? After all, we're not merely naming a bridge or voting on whether a 100-year-old house should be on the National Register of Historic Places. Deciding on the major issues of our day, if handled badly, could cost an entire generation its economic security. Even if the decisions are wise ones, they will have profound and long-lasting consequences. Should it be easy for a small group of people to alter---possibly even tear up---the foundational pillars of our economy and our very way of life? I say the answer to that question is---and should be---a resounding "no."
Those who want to make such foundational changes should be required to take their case to the American people in the face of a skeptical, vigorous opposition. In the recent Senate healthcare debate, we have heard cries that the filibuster should be abolished, that debates that go on through the weekend are unnecessary and arcane, and that votes in the wee hours of the morning are ridiculous. But I say that these "speed bumps" built in to the legislative process enable us to hold demagogues and tyrants in check. These checks and restraints, said bluntly, prevent Kristallnachts and Red Octobers.
Now, is the process frustrating? Yes. Does it sometimes result in "gridlock"? Again, yes. Does it occasionally even create embarrassing spectacles? No doubt, as recent watchers of C-SPAN and the national news can readily attest.
But this slow, grinding and---dare I say it---divisive process also protects freedom and liberty. It prevents a small and powerful few from exerting their will, unchecked, over the vast majority of the rest of us.
So the next time you think that American politics is too divisive, or the next time you hear the naïve, sentimental cry "Why can't we just all get along?" remember another, wiser cry from history: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And remember, too, that divisive politics is one way we ensure that no one man or woman ever holds absolute power.