“Polarization” is the watchword for politics in 2019, especially at the national level.
Just when you thought the two political parties couldn’t be any further apart, impeachment rears its ugly head and drives the wedge even deeper between Republicans and Democrats. But even as this developing drama could produce the most political consternation since Watergate, I prefer not to dwell on impeachment right now.
Connecticut has its own wedge issues, tolls and taxes among the biggest. And now you can add the debate over the status of Connecticut itself to the list of issues that divide people largely along party lines.
I used to think Connecticut and its politicians were more willing to work together than the elected officials swimming in the partisan D.C. swamp. But I’ve abandoned that optimistic view.
The state budget, for example, was approved almost exclusively along party lines; 86 of the 91 Democrats in Hartford passed it, while all Republicans opposed it. As CT News Junkie reported, “Republican Minority Leader Themis Klarides said the budget proposal had ‘no direction and no philosophy’ except ‘for taking more money out of people’s pockets’.”
Speaking of Klarides, the Derby Republican had harsh words for Democratic Governor Ned Lamont at the Connecticut GOP-sponsored Prescott Bush Awards dinner two weeks ago: “He doesn’t know how to do the job, and that’s the problem here. Part of me feels badly for him because he’s not a jerk, but he just can’t do the job. That’s the bottom line. He is incompetent to do this job.” For good measure, Klarides tacked on an “F-minus” job rating for Lamont.
Not exactly an invitation for bipartisan problem-solving.
Obviously, Connecticut’s politicians are not immune to the nation’s growing polarization. Neither are its citizens. Thanks in large part to today’s information-spewing internet and opinion-laden social-media platforms, all of us can access whatever information we desire and spout whatever opinions we harbor. But in so doing, we cut ourselves off from alternative views.
“One reason for this polarization is what psychologists call the ‘confirmation bias,’ in which our beliefs and emotions cloud our perception, making us interpret information to match our expectations,” explains Psychology Today. “We too often see what we want to see, what we fear to see, or what we hope to see instead of what’s really there.”
It wasn’t always this way — at least not to this extent. Sure, Democrats and Republicans have constantly feuded, but they also found ways to bridge the gap.
President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill are the oft-mentioned example when discussing bipartisan deal-making. In 1982, when budget deficits were increasing and the economy was teetering, the Republican Reagan and Democrat O’Neill were not exactly seeing eye-to-eye: “The White House wanted to cut domestic spending, including Social Security. O’Neill wanted to safeguard entitlement programs and reverse some of Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich.”
Despite their conflicting philosophies, Reagan and O’Neill worked together for four months to come up with “the basis of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which increased tax revenues by about one per cent of G.D.P.” What’s more, “Reagan and O’Neill also set up a bipartisan commission on Social Security, and the following year they both endorsed a set of reforms that put the finances of the public retirement system on a firmer footing.”
One century earlier, President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass were involved in a more fundamental dispute: how to end slavery. As their relationship fluctuated, Lincoln and Douglass ultimately realized that “placing their lives side by side” and “reflecting the one off the other” would lead to a solution, according to John Stauffer’s biography of these two historical Giants.
“They were pragmatists, able to put aside their vast differences and come together as friends,” writes Stauffer. “In 1860 Douglass helped elect Lincoln as president. At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln met Douglass three times at the White House. Their friendship was chiefly utilitarian: Lincoln needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy; Douglass knew that Lincoln could help him end slavery.”
Sadly, that courageous bipartisan spirit that enabled America to overcome its most formidable conflict seems gone now — a distant memory. Or maybe not.
To his credit, “Gov. Ned Lamont called for bipartisan civility” immediately after Themis Klarides lambasted him, according to the Hartford Courant.
Say whatever you want about Lamont. At least in this situation, he resisted the temptation to sling mud back in Klarides’ direction.
It’s a response that all Connecticut politicians would do well to follow, the very approach Abraham Lincoln espoused in his first inaugural address: “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
It’s time to summon those better angels once again.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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