It is up to us to heal a divided America
Our Founding Fathers utilized foresight, creativity, collaboration, and compromise in creating the American experiment in liberty. From the beginning of our republic, however, there have frequently been intense political debates over the size, role, and framework of the federal government not dissimilar to those of today.
When the proposed Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, ratification was not a foregone conclusion. Article VII stipulated that nine states had to ratify it. During the next ten months, “Debate over the Constitution raged in newspapers, pamphlets, taverns, coffeehouses, and over dinner tables, as well as in the Confederation Congress, state legislatures, and state ratifying conventions,” Pauline Maier, author of “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788,” tells us. When the First Congress initially met in March 1789, two of the 13 original states — North Carolina and Rhode Island — were still considering ratification.
Maier calls the ratification story “one of the greatest and most probing debates in American history,” that “involved far more than the handful of familiar ‘founding fathers.’” She emphasizes how deeply ordinary people were involved.
Many times since, America’s leaders and citizens have debated everything from slavery to taxes, territorial expansion to civil rights, women’s suffrage to the economy, immigration to global warming, and health care to national security. Isolationists have been pitted against internationalists, free trade advocates against protectionists.
Distinctively diverse voices have echoed across America as the nation endured a Civil War, impeachment trials, assassinations and riots, wars, war protesters, McCarthyism, the Great Depression, and Watergate. Those voices have been heard as we experienced good as well as bad presidents, self-serving and corrupt politicians, and attempts to undermine the Constitution.
What makes the current polarization and contention so troublesome is that it has gripped every segment of American life. It is affecting our families, friendships, romantic relationships, marriages, communities, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, religious organizations, and even advice offered by physicians.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only half of adult Americans think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on life in America. “This is also true,” write Zaid Jilani and Jeremy Adam Smith, “to different degrees, for the press, the military, libraries, and other institutions that were once ‘big tents’ for many kinds of Americans.” Polarization is everywhere and it is divisive.
“It is time,” President-elect Joe Biden declared in his victory speech, “to put away the harsh rhetoric,” “listen to each other,” and “stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.”
Other insightful voices have stressed the importance of finding compassionate ways of thinking about each other; understanding and learning from those who think differently than us; and discovering constructive ways to address harmful, angry, and hateful discord. We need to make a commitment to avoid social media, partisan news, political pundits, and biased internet sites that can polarize our thinking, and focus on issues rather than parties.
Particular emphasis is placed on the importance of our leaders and citizenry consciously devoting more attention to understanding the principles imbedded in the Constitution and to the philosophy undergirding those principles. “The Founders believed that the real security for liberty would be a people who could understand those ideas which are necessary to preserve liberty and perceive approaching threats to their freedom,” according to the National Center for Constitutional Studies.
Of course, we must demand that Congress restore its ability to effectively legislate, actually debate and resolve issues, and do so civilly. For a decade, Gallup has been asking Americans whether “It is more important for political leaders to compromise in order to get things done,” or “to stick to their beliefs even if little gets done.” Consistently, Americans have tilted toward the compromise end of the spectrum, but Congress has shown little ability to compromise on virtually anything.
When compromise — an essential element of our system of checks and balances — vanishes, the probability of our elected officials making decisions that truly address issues efficiently and effectively becomes far less likely. Congressional productivity is often measured by the number of public laws passed by a particular Congress. Using that measure, the 116th Congress is on a course to pass the fewest public laws of any Congress since before the Civil War.
America cannot be a beacon of hope to the rest of the world if we continue to express intense dislike and disdain for those who have a different perspective.
Repeatedly, though often painfully, we as a nation have overcome our ideological divisions by exercising civility, increasing empathy and reducing prejudice. It is clearly time to do it again. We need competing visions, rigorous debate.
Disagreeing is not the problem. It is how we do it that has brought us to this point.
Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq, and Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties 1774-2012.