In 1992, George H. W. Bush proclaimed, “there is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.” Indeed, beginning in the early 90’s, “public morality” – the ethical code that would define America – became the leitmotif of American political discourse. Abortion, LGBT rights, publically funded art, and religious schools became hot issues. Battle lines were drawn, allegiances were pledged, and the culture war had begun.
Conservatives declared their party to be the party of the founding fathers, a party that spoke to Bush’s “nation that we still call God’s country.” Liberals declared their party to be one of meeting new challenges and looking forward. They labeled themselves as progressive, moving into an American Enlightenment equipped with a fresh and superior understanding of poverty, sexuality, race relations, and public morality. The two parties became two competing value systems, warring voters in a race that would produce one winner and one loser. The parties decided that there was no compromise.
A “with us or against us” mentality infected Washington. America entered an unprecedented era of partisanship, as each of the two parties sought to label the other as not just imprudent, but morally wrong. Smear campaigns, character assassination, and candidate litmus tests became commonplace in American politics. As the culture wars spilled into the various branches of government, political appointments became centered around candidates opinion on hotly contested issues of public morality, and less about their abilities as leaders, judges, or diplomats. In selecting judges for our courts, a candidate’s personal opinion on abortion, for example, might be more valued than his or her ability to objectively adjudicate the law.
The rise of political pundits; Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes, Bill O’Reilly, and Ed Schulz have exacerbated the problem. All of these pundits, liberal and conservative alike, invent history, tell partial truths, gloss over complicated policies., and care more about lambasting their opponents than about truly examining prudent policies to help our country. Jon Stewart was onto something when he referred to this kind of “reporting” as “partisan hackery.”
I have asked staunch supporters of both parties how they feel about partisanship in Washington. When asked why they would support a clearly incompetent candidate who represented their party, they tell me: “because I know how they will vote.” Voting someone into office because they will vote “republican” or “democrat” drives our country further into partisanship. In order to guarantee a “republican” vote, conservatives support far right-wing candidates. One might throw their vote away if they dared to vote for a more moderate republican, who might “flip” on an issue. Consequently, party voting tends to produce candidates who are least willing to compromise on their values. When both parties do this, it produces a stalemate. Washington is becoming filled with obstinate fools who thrive off platitudes and vapid political rhetoric.
The culture war is problematic for effective governance, and now more than ever, we must declare a cease-fire. Today, the culture war has spread into the realms of economics, care for the poor and the elderly, education, health care, and foreign policy. Republican tacticians accused democrats of implementing “death panels” in the new Health Care Legislation. During the recent budget battles, conservatives claiming to be fiscal hawks spent tremendous amounts of political capital trying to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. It wasn’t all about the budget. Had their effort been placed elsewhere, perhaps they could have bargained for more than $38 billion in spending cuts.
The rhetoric employed in debating the current economic crisis reeks of the culture war. When income taxes for the super wealthy were close to 90% in the 50’s and 60’s, nobody described Truman, Eisenhower, or Johnson as “socialist tyrants”. Anymore, talk of raising taxes for the rich (read: ending the Bush Tax Cuts) results in accusations of tyranny and socialism. It isn’t tyranny, and it isn’t socialism. It’s prudent, and it probably needs to happen. Federal tax expenditures cost the government trillions.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle must realize that addressing our fiscal woes demands compromise. Revenues must be increased and spending must be curbed. Ending the Bush tax cuts and increasing the capital gains tax is a good place to start. Raising the retirement age, trimming entitlement spending, and addressing ballooning pension funds are also necessary. These kinds of policies require bi-partisan support. No party will save the economy alone.
Despite the gloomy outlook, there are signs of hope. Bi-partisan groups are beginning to gain support. One such group, No Labels, has already amassed hundreds of thousands of supporters. The front page of their website states “we are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside and do what’s best for America.” This kind of bipartisanship and civility is exactly what Washington needs right now.
As our economy flounders and our international prowess evaporates, Democrats and Republicans alike are further entrenching themselves in ideology. This is not the time for idealism or populism. As our political spectrum spreads apart, moderates and independents are essentially ostracized from the political community. Because moderate politicians aren’t winning primaries, moderate voters are forced to choose between two extremes – the lesser of two evils. Politics should not be about choosing sides in a war for soul of America. There are issues we can all agree on, and perhaps we should start focusing more on the similarities, and less on the differences.