Thursday, March 15, 2012
George Washington hated political parties, he warned they could destroy the nation. In his farewell address in 1796 Washington warned that "They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party." Adding a party "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection."
Washington's point that political parties are vehicles of "faction" certainly has merit, the Republicans and the Democrats surely share some of the blame for the extreme polarization currently plaguing the American government. But blame must also be attributed to those that the parties represent and who vote for them.
The forces behind the polarization in American politics are many and derive from American society itself. Heightened individualism, consumerism, a weaker middle class, religious developments, the legal system, secularization, among others, are all factors that have contributed to the growing ideological divide, however there is a probable cause that hasn't been mentioned, and that is being a superpower.
America wasn't always as grossly partisan as it is today, the increase in polarization is likely to have in part been caused by the simultaneous rise of America in the world, or more accurately the popular realization of its superpower status.
In Polarized America, professors McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal reviewed voting in the House of Representatives and in the Senate since Reconstruction, graphing the distances between the Republicans and the Democrats. From the end of the Second World War, when American global dominance was secured polarization drastically and steadily increased. The rise of partisanship has only continued as the country has wielded more and more power in the world.
Polarization had been high until the end of the First World War, but could be explained from residual high tension from a freshly ended civil war. Crises such as the Great Depression and trouble in Europe could also explain the incredible decrease in partisanship and unity that followed.
Leading the allies and rebuilding war-torn Europe confirmed America's superpower status, and awakened its citizens to the reality that their country, their elected government was all the more important, which meant their ideologies were too. Domestically, no longer were Republicans and Democrats battling for control of just the American government, they were waging war for the most powerful institution in the world. As their prize became larger, it is no wonder the parties fought harder, and divided further.
Hyperpartisanship is a complex problem and has many factors behind it, but history is clear, the rise of polarization in America is related to the rise of America in the world.
Superpower status brings superpower ideologies. As democracies tend to have more than one party, a democratic country leading the world will inevitably have competing ideologies on that scale. As America's political influence has grown so too has its partisanship.
Some may ask what George Washington would think of the extreme partisanship that is weakening the country he founded, but considering he thought that political parties are a corruptive influence in an ordinary nation, he wouldn't be surprised that in a superpower, they are only more so.