Partisan polarization, a danger to the country’s future

Bowen Deng ’22

The United States Congress is perhaps in its most divided era since the Civil War. Almost every form of meaningful legislation is proposed along party lines and will likely not pass thanks to the filibuster and in certain cases, an unwillingness to compromise. While disagreements are inevitable and the partisan divide between congressional Democrats and Republicans is far from a new revelation—one can trace this polarization back to the presidency of Bill Clinton—the rate at which this division has accelerated in the past four years is alarming. Our generation will be (and already is) directly affected by the increasingly partisan nature of Congress, and the future looks grim if something does not change soon. I am writing this article not to claim that bipartisanship is always a good thing or that every significant legislative proposal should always have bipartisan support; I simply wish to point out how the staunchly partisan nature of Congress can be extremely detrimental to the future of the nation.

     In a way, one could argue that this level of polarization was inevitable; the Republican party shifted towards conservatism, while the Democrats remained staunchly supportive of the big-government ideal espoused by FDR and LBJ. While there was a fair share of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats in the past, they are now virtually nonexistent. Conservative Democrats have joined the Republican party, while liberal Republicans have shifted to the Democratic party — the states of New England and the Deep South demonstrate this shift the best.

     However, the current disagreements between both parties go far beyond social or economic issues; our elected politicians cannot come together to investigate an incident of domestic terrorism. The January 6 Commission failed in the Senate, with just six Republican senators voting in favor of the commission, far from the 60 vote threshold needed to break the filibuster. The proposal was far, far from partisan. Republican Representative John Katko and Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson modeled it after the 9/11 Commission: five Democrats and five Republicans chosen by their respective leaders would create a report on the events of Jan 6. Even after Susan Collins proposed compromises to make the bill more appealing to the Senate GOP, it failed. 

If we cannot trust our elected officials to work together and make sure the events of January 6 do not happen again, what can we trust them with?

     There are many adjectives to describe this: puzzling, disappointing, but more significantly, worrying. If we cannot trust our elected officials to work together and make sure the events of January 6 do not happen again, what can we trust them with? This should not be a Republican vs. Democrat issue, but it has turned into one; Republicans seem more concerned about their standing in the 2022 midterm elections than the safety of the capital.

     It was not always like this; meaningful and necessary proposals were not thrown away for the sake of partisan gain. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 would not have passed if it weren’t for bipartisan efforts in both chambers of Congress. President Kennedy worked with Republican Representative William McCullough for the foundations of what would later be the Civil Rights Bill. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield knew that without the support of the Republican party, they would never overcome the Southern Democrats’ racist filibusters and get enough votes for passage. Thus, they turned towards Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirkson to court Republican support. Dirkson knew that it was an election year and the Civil Rights Bill would be a significant legislative victory for Johnson’s re-election campaign, but he still put country over party and did the right thing. Senate Republicans worked with the Democratic Party to create the strongest piece of legislation (at that time) addressing racism that both parties—save for the Southern senators—could support. Even Reagan’s tax cuts were able to overcome a gridlocked Congress, with many House Democrats supporting them (there are strong opinions associated with Reaganomics, but the point remains that they could not have been enacted without the help of Democrats). 

The East Side of the U.S. Capitol- Wikimedia Commons

     Still, there is no point in reminiscing about the past or looking at it through a rose-tinted lens. 

     So, is bipartisanship dead? Yes, and no. Despite Biden pledging to restore unity, he faces staunch opposition from the Republican Party on whatever he proposes. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that “100% of my effort is on stopping this current administration.” Some progressives see no point in negotiating with the Republican party and are encouraging the President to press on without them. However, there are the likes of Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Lisa Murkowski in the Senate; both have actively tried to seek policies that both parties will agree upon (for example, both have called for a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act), but it may not matter. There will always be those who advocate for bipartisanship, but they may just drown in a sea of voices. 

At the moment, Congress is a danger to the Union itself and the issues that America faces.

     The United States of America cannot continue like this. At the moment, Congress is a danger to the Union itself and the issues that America faces. As it stands, any meaningful legislation will happen along partisan lines, with the majority chamber ramming it through. While this is not always a bad thing—for example, the American Rescue Plan has been deemed a success by the American people, despite no Republicans voting for it—Congress will continue to grow increasingly partisan and politics will grow nastier and nastier. And what will happen when an issue arises that should not be a partisan one? Can we trust a partisan Congress to keep that issue nonpartisan?