We are not polarized

Jim Chrisinger: “Polarized” sounds like both sides becoming more extreme. That’s not what’s happening. One party is jeopardizing America’s 245-year grand experiment in self-government. -promoted by Laura Belin

We continually hear that our country is polarized. That implies symmetry; it gives the impression that Americans are moving farther apart on a left-right axis. The left and right each become more extreme while the middle thins.  We keep hearing politicians, pundits, and journalists claim “both sides” are responsible for this polarization.  

That’s not what’s happening, people!      

Yes, each party has extremists; that’s nothing new. What’s new is that one party, the Republican party, has veered off the political continuum. They’ve sailed off a cliff.  

Republicans have taken stands — or have assented and encouraged by remaining silent — that have nothing to do with liberal or conservative policy positions. These positions are simply anti-democratic and anti-American.  

There’s so much evidence to choose from, but let’s focus on five egregious challenges:  

Not defending our 2016 elections against Russian meddling. With few exceptions, Republicans went along with Donald Trump’s denials after it was clearly shown that the Russians hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and used them against her and ginned up social media to boost Trump, harm Hillary and Democrats, and undermine our elections in general. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, delivered to a Russian intelligence contact the Trump campaign’s data and analysis on key battle ground states, which enabled the Russians to better target their efforts. Republicans refused to defend American sovereignty.  

Perpetuating Trump’s Big Lie. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 presidential election, which was free and fair. Sixty-some court cases, including Trump-appointed judges, and election officials of both parties across all fifty states validated the election. Republicans’ continued complicity in denying Trump’s loss — and lending support to Trump’s wild claims about fraud and manipulation — led to January 6 and threaten to undermine every election we will now hold. Ominously, the new Georgia election law gives their legislature a means to intervene to overturn election results. It’s hard to think of anything more damaging to our democracy.  

Suppressing votes and gerrymandering. In the face of demographics, Republican leaders had to make a choice. They could have expanded their agenda and messaging to reach beyond white, Christian, xenophobic, and homophobic grievance and big business/the wealthy to attract more voters. Instead, in state after state, the party has doubled down on myriad ways to suppress votes and gerrymander districts. The GOP has been doing this for years, but perpetuating the Big Lie has supercharged their efforts.  

Flouting the rule of law. Where to start? Ignoring Congressional subpoenas; obstructing justice; using the Department of Justice to protect Trump, reward friends, and punish enemies; interfering in Inspector General investigations; wrongly spending Congressional appropriations; refusing to submit to Senate “advise and consent” for high-level appointments; and repeatedly violating the Hatch Act.    

Rejecting truth and objective facts. This one may cause the most damage in the long run because it’s hard for people to return to truth after mass immersion in fear, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. “Fake news,” “the deep state,” and science denial undermine our ability to constructively debate problems and find solutions, the beating heart of democracy. As George Orwell wrote in his prescient book, 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”  

Again, none of these five challenges has anything to do with conservative or liberal policy. I oppose just about all of the right’s culture war agenda, but that is arguably about policy. We should debate and may the most votes win.  

No, we are not “polarized.” One party is jeopardizing America’s 245-year grand experiment in self-government. History will judge each of us for what we do now.  

Jim Chrisinger is a retired career public servant who worked in Democratic and Republican administrations, including the State of Iowa from 1996 to 2007.

Top image: Jim Larkin's illustration of a flag adorned elephant (representing the Republican Party) split in two, available via Shutterstock.

  • Not quite

    Although Democrats may not be fanatical about as many issues as Republicans, it is incorrect to say that Democrats are not equally fanatical about their issues -- our issues -- such that there is a lack of equipoise.

    Here are three such off-the-spectrum issues, about which Democrats seem rabid:

    (1) #MeToo: For better or for worse, some of our number vilify any man who is on the rise in his profession or social position, once an accusation of sexual harassment or abuse is leveled against him. They allow no exceptions. They, instead, assign the full weight of every act of sexual harassment or sexual abuse ever experienced by any woman anywhere to the accused man, and they refuse to concede that the judgment is hasty or disproportionate.

    It is enough, in their view, that he is a man, that he is a public figure, that he is advancing in his status, and that women who have actually suffered sexual harassment or abuse were prevented from achieving their full potential in their job or social standing or their life, generally, because of that harassment or abuse.

    The model for this is former Minnesota Senator, Al Franken, against whom the only solid bit of sexual abuse "evidence" was a photo of his holding his hands some distance away from a sleeping woman's breasts, pretending to be rubbing them. He was a rising star, and by all accounts a great Senator and a key midwestern Democrat. He resigned in disgrace, noting that he was doing so during the Presidency of a Commander-in-Chief who actually sexually abused women.

    To this day, there has not been any expression by any of his detractors of to the effect, the prejudgment of him and the pressure brought to bear on him was unfair. It was enough that sexual harassment and abuse is a common experience of many women and a fear of many more women. In other words, the pressure to condemn Al Franken had little, or nothing, to do with Al Franken, at all.

    (2) Cancel culture. In its most pervasive form, cancel culture regards increasingly successful attempts to silence speech, remove art, and eliminate the distribution of literature in what, up to now, have been traditional venues for the free exchange of disparate ideas, because that speech, that art and/or those pieces of literature are deemed offensive by a small but vocal group of individuals. In some situations, some people objecting to these forms of expression do not actually object to them. Rather, these individuals are ascertaining the amount of power they are capable of wielding over others.

    The world sees it when a group successfully convinces an American university to cancel a previously-scheduled, paid, speech from controversial figures like Condoleezza Rice, or Paul Ryan or Lindsay Graham or Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The world sees it when other traditional venues of free expression, like sidewalks and the entryways to public buildings are blocked by passionate Democrats who do not want ideas to which they object to be experienced by others. These Democrats fashion themselves the purveyors of what is "good," and what is not; what is "true" and what is not; what is worthy of a forum, and what is not.

    To the extent this resistance is not condemned by the Party, the Democratic Party is catapulted beyond the "continuum" of which Mr. Larkin speaks.

    (3) Defund the police, literally. We have a flapping wing of our party, the stated desire of which is to cease funding law enforcement, altogether. To a large extent, these are folks who have appointed themselves the future leaders of the Democratic Party, and their number is not insignificant.

    A year ago, Democratic candidates for public office were twisting words like pretzels, attempting to recharacterize the term, "defund the police," to mean re-allocating responsibilities, funds and other resources from law enforcement agencies to public health providers, like mental health facilities in county hospitals. Significantly, none of the politicians trying to rebrand the term introduced it so, their definitions were insincere. As the result, their watered-down explanation never gained traction with the electorate.

    While it is a convenient rhetorical device, accusing Republicans as a whole of being not just off the tracks, but careening down a cliff, based upon a generalization borne of a half dozen Republican issues, we recognize that the Republican Party is not so monolithic. So, such a characterization is, itself, baked with hubris.

    More than that, to the extent we buy into that characterization, we demonstrate a profound lack of self-awareness and self-reflection. Not every Democrat is rabid about #MeToo, or cancel culture. And not every Democrat wants to go without a police force, or county sheriffs, or state troopers.

    Few Democrats will express outright disagreement with any of the three issues I have laid out here. There are other divisive issues not mentioned. A Republican adopting Mr. Larkin's position, vis-a-vis Democrats, could easily say that the lack of overt dissent means that we are all united behind the extreme positions that underlie them..

    That Republican would be just as wrong as Mr. Larkin is here.

    This leaves two opposing scenarios emanating from Mr. Larkin's essay, neither one of which is his thesis: either we Democrats are just as loopy as the Republicans are, or both parties have an equally "out there" contingent, identical in fervor.

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