If you think the political atmosphere has become more complicated lately, you’re right. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that fewer Americans are willing to call themselves Republicans or Democrats than ever before, leaving our once-binary system in a state of multilateral flux.
Everywhere there are signs that major parties are losing their once-tight grip on political discourse and power. There are many reasons for this, but I suspect the fragmenting of the parties has much to do with their ideological inflexibility, unbreakable alliances with special-interest groups, and the rise of outside political spending as a result of state and federal campaign finance reforms.
Yet what’s most striking about the Pew poll is the revelation that those who choose not to affiliate with political parties are still unlikely to be “middle-of-the-road” in a political sense.
“Rather than being moderate,” the study finds, “many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.”
In other words, there no longer seems to be a “mushy middle.” Americans as a whole are in deep and profound disagreement over economic and social issues, leaving less room for give-and-take dialogue. We’ve become set in our ways, quick to condemn, and slow to forgive. And as the Pew poll shows, this dynamic plays out in interparty, intraparty and extraparty contexts.
It’s one thing to have strong opinions about ideas — in fact, it’s a good thing. Ideas matter. What’s deteriorated is our ability to disagree over ideas without making it personal. This has less to do with partisanship than temperament.
All is not lost. This nation fought a Civil War over ideas, and came together afterward. What made it possible was a shared sense of destiny, a political blood relation.
Abe Lincoln said it best: “We are not enemies, but friends,” he told Americans in his first inaugural address. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Amen to that.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”