Saturday, November 27, 2010

Political Dialogue

Facebook has an interesting feature called "Questions" in which users can ask a question and receive answers from others in the Facebook community. In October the following questions was asked:
What can we do to improve the state of dialog across the political spectrum in the US? At this point it seems hopeless! [sic]
This is a question I've heard repeatedly. At the time the question was asked on Facebook, I had read up to the pre-Civil War period in Schweikart's and Allen's excellent book A Patriot's History of the United States. Among other things, A Patriot's History provides an excellent overview of the conflict between the various parties that have existed throughout our history.

It's obvious from even a cursory review of US history that "dialogue across the political spectrum" has always been poor. Although George Washington is now revered, while he was president his Federalist administration was constantly under attack by Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. These attacks were often vicious and occasionally slanderous. This motivated Washington's warning about the danger of political parties in his Farewell Address. During John Adams' administration, Democratic-Republican attacks on the Federalists became such a nuisance that the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts; blatantly unconstitutional legislation that resulted in fines and/or jail time for those who were deemed guilty of "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government.

Political dialogue only got worse from there, reaching a low point just prior to the Civil War. One of the most infamous breakdowns in civility in the history of the United States Congress occurred on May 22, 1856 when Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC) beat Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) with a cane in response to Sumner's heated anti-slavery speech from a couple days before. Since Preston broke the cane while beating Sumner, his constituents sent him new ones and encouraged Preston to "hit him again".

Considering that people have been asking why the political parties can't get along since George Washington's time, I find questions about why political dialogue is currently so poor to be naive. Why is it so bad? Because human beings don't always agree and often hold very strong opinions. Is this a new phenomenon? No, it has always been bad, and has often been worse than it is today. The worst we have now are ad hominem attacks and mudslinging ads. In the 18th and 19th centuries you could find congressmen beating each other with canes or challenging each other to a duel.

But is it really a bad thing that we've divided into political parties and disagree on almost everything? Washington's contemporary and Father of the Constitution James Madison thought that political parties were a necessary component of a democratic system. He believed that the tension created by opposing parties would reduce the chance that any person or group of people could obtain an oppressive or tyrannical degree of power. I have to agree with Madison given what has happened in the recent past when a single party has achieved control of both the White House and Congress; e.g., the insane spending and power-grabbing legislation of Obama and the Democratic congress or the ever increasing fiscal irresponsibility of Bush and the Republican congress before them. Is congressional deadlock really that bad? Professor de la Paz of Robert Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress would argue that since laws tend to represent a curbing of personal freedom to one degree or another, it would be preferable to see the government stuck in endless debate and accomplishing nothing. "What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing."

Anyway, I answered the Facebook question as follows:
The state of dialog will not improve. The relationship between political parties in the U.S. has been bad since there were political parties. The Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans were at each other's throats in the late 18th century, with the Federalists going as far as passing the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence their political opponents. In the Civil War the Unionists were composed of Republicans and so-called War Democrats and the Confederates were composed of Democrats. Ironically, the relationship between the political parties right now is better than it has been historically. At least we haven't resorted to widespread politically motivated violence yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts with Thumbnails