Hyper-partisanship will not last

Published 9:11 pm Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Joe Gandelman

“Dear columnist: I am 13 years old and in the eighth grade. Some of my friends say America will never be able to put back together after the highly divisive presidential election and that due to hyper-partisanship people will never work together to solve our problems. They say it’s getting almost impossible. Papa says if you hear people say it on TV, in newspapers and on blogs then it must be so.

Please tell me the truth: can America truly get together after this election? Can there ever be a change that takes place that could move our country toward real problem-solving, or is this as “good” as it can get?

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Virginia, your friends are wrong.

I know how easy it is to get swept up by the early 21st century’s rages, passions and melodrama. You and your friends are picking up the fact that our politics no longer resemble the kind of politics that made America great — where consensus and compromise were virtues and where politicians perhaps begrudgingly acknowledged the importance of truth and could not blatantly and intentionally ignore it.

You’re picking up on the tone of our political culture where rudeness, boorishness and aggressiveness are mistaken for intelligence. Our political culture has shifted, but just as things shift, they can re-shift, and young people have the power to do it.

Go back into American history and you’ll find many examples of times when compromise — two principled parties or politicians giving a little, then taking a little to come up with something for the common good — was a virtue. Legislator and former Secretary of State Henry Clay Sr. was even called “The Great Compromiser” for his role in the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Partisans known for compromise today face primaries and are replaced by hyper-partisans.

Much of American political culture is now set up to define compromise as a weakness and consensus as being in the inaccurately defined “mushy middle.” It showers those who are the loudest, most outrageous, and most insulting with attention and riches.

Some of today’s leaders in both parties do seek compromise and cooperation (note New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and President Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy), and some may seek consensus. American history is filled with figures who cherished the idea of consensus, even while assertively promoting strong ideological ideals: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ and many more. Gil Troy, in his superb book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” classifies Ronald Reagan as a “moderate,” because he successfully used compromise and consensus.

Some work to undermine compromise and consensus. Ideological movements demonize opponents and seek to shrink once-big political tents. Corporations broadcast popular talk shows and cable shows that rake in big bucks by harnessing, communicating and enlarging resentment and anger to build audience share that’s then sold to advertisers. The ideological cable channels increasingly celebrate political incivility.

Still, there courageous politicians and media types, and America has a strong center. Many people in their teens and 20s have told me they look with revulsion on hyper-partisanship and the verbal and written screaming and insulting associated with it. Many wish there were a strong third-party movement.

The fact you and others ask this question means you may — and can — make it different. Other generations made it different in positive (the Greatest Generation) and negative (Baby Boomers) ways. Your generation can do it in a positive way again.


Joe Gandelman has written for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice. Email him at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com.