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Hyper-Partisanship and the Return to Political Civility

July 2, 2012

Michael Arnone ’15

Republicans and Democrats seldom agree on how to govern the nation—this is evident even to a casual observer.  For much of our history, however, the two party system has served us fairly well despite its archaic nature.  Yet the ideological divide between the two parties has never been greater or more dangerous to the well-being of the nation as a whole.  The partisan chasm that opened in the 1990s has since come to dominate—if not define—politics in Washington.  The resulting atmosphere has stymied meaningful political debate and legislative accomplishment.  It is important to realize, however, that politics in the Capital are the product—at least in part—of the American electorate.  In short, we as a people are responsible for hyper-partisanship, and we as a people have the power to reverse this trend.

Hyper-partisanship is a daily reality for me as an intern on my Congressman’s re-election campaign.  I focus primarily on field work—grassroots organizing, so I interact with the voting population on a regular basis.  The New York 1st Congressional has long been a swing district and elections here are often close.  As such, any successful candidate must reach across the aisle to win.  While that is a straightforward tactic, it is not as simple as one might think.

In a given week, I make between one and two hundred phone calls in order to identify our voter base—‘will you vote for the Congressman in November?’  These calls are not targeted, so I call Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and a host of other parties.  My experience is that few people are undecided—they know how they will vote and cannot be easily persuaded otherwise.  Democrats and Republicans alike lecture me about the crimes of the other party—the only difference being Republicans curse me out over the phone, whereas Democrats sing the praises of my work.  Less informed voters care almost exclusively about party affiliation: “I only vote Republican” and vice versa.  This trend is more evident when I staff the Congressman at public events.  The people he speaks to either sing his praises as a Democrat or vow to run him out of office—with little in between.

In general, the voters I speak with rarely have a logical basis for their position—rather their political stance is based on being contrary to the other party.  In a nutshell, the issues are now dwarfed by political patronage. American politics has become a game whose objective is to enfeeble and humiliate the other party rather than come together and serve the nation’s best interests.  This is an unsustainable model that does not bode well for the United States.

But beltway Politics are, despite appearances, the product of our elections.  The simple fact that we send our politicians to Washington—and can just as easily remove them—is often lost on the average voter.  Radicals in both parties have drowned out moderate voices at home and in the Capital.  I believe that most voters are not so partisan—but have been swayed by extreme voices within their respective parties.  Most are reasonable individuals who simply do not have the time to objectively inform themselves of national and local issues—and thusly defer to the positions of more partisan members.  Hyper-partisanship is thus a result of inaction on the part of the majority of Americans—a negligence to inform themselves and vote regularly.  The return to civil politics then may well lie in the latent power of the American electorate.  It is simply a matter of motivating the silent majority (a cliché to be sure) to elect more rational politicians.

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