Unprecedented Incivility and Dysfunction in Washington?

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Many political pundits suggest we’ve been witnessing a time of unprecedented incivility and political dysfunction within the US government. But a thoughtful look at the historical record would indicate otherwise.

A lone senator embarks upon an aimless verbal marathon — even resorting to reciting lines from Green Eggs and Ham just to stall a vote. A core group of House members vows to shut down the government in order to derail implementation of all or part of the administration’s signature piece of legislation. Some congressional members call the president a “dictator” because he refuses to compromise and some senators say certain house members are “crazy” for bending to the wills of a fringe group of ideological zealots. Meanwhile, the nation teeters on the brink of an historic default before a last minute compromise provides a reprieve of sorts and only for a few months at that. Many political pundits suggest we’ve been witnessing a time of unprecedented incivility and political dysfunction within the US government. But a thoughtful look at the historical record would indicate otherwise.

Some political commentators — especially those who insist that political struggles in Washington had a much more civil tone in times past — appear to have been looking at history through some pretty rose-colored glasses. One television analyst who openly laments the passing of the “good ole’ days” and who wrote a book about former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and former President Ronald Reagan (Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked ), claims that not only were these two legendary political archrivals the best of friends outside of the political arena but also they treated one another with civility and respect and never let their differences of opinion impede the necessary functioning of government. But while there’s some truth in what Chris Matthews asserts about the working relationship between O’Neill and Reagan, a closer look at the record of each man paints a very different picture of their tendency to speak civilly of one another and their ability to avert political gridlock. Under O’Neill’s tenure as speaker, funding gaps leading to full or partial government shutdowns occurred 12 times. And during Reagan’s two terms (part of which saw Jim Wright succeed O’Neill as speaker) there were eight shutdowns. Both of these men had some pretty nasty things to say about each other as well from time to time (although most of the harsher public comments came from O’Neill). For example, in his memoirs, O’Neill said of Reagan: “I’ve known personally every president since Jack Kennedy and I can honestly say that Ronald Reagan was the worst. But, he’d have made a hell of a king.”

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Political incivility and dysfunction go back to the earliest days of the republic. Though they were close friends for most of their lives except for a period of estrangement prompted when the outgoing president filled several administrative posts at the last minute with some of his successor’s most ardent political opponents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams exchanged their fair share of vitriol. To besmirch Adams, Jefferson once hired a writer who described Adams as “a repulsive pedant,” a “gross hypocrite,” and “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensiblity of a woman.” And when it comes to gridlock, few administrations could hold a candle to the tenure of John Tyler, the country’s 10th president. In 1842, a diplomat from Britain described the United States as “a mass of ungovernable and unmanageable anarchy,” while the secretary of the Navy described the congress as “incompetent to legislate.” If ever there were a period of discord reaching perilous proportion it would be from the years immediately preceding the onset of the Civil War through the first decades following the war’s end. American memories tend to be curiously short on many significant historical events. We seem to forget the brutal mudslinging, the fisticuffs, the scandals and slanders, the bloody conflicts, and, of course, the assassinations and attempted assassinations that have been part of the political landscape since the very beginning. It’s only our distorted memories that makes it seem like things used to be better. The fact that opposing factions have been duking it out so viciously on Capitol Hill in recent weeks is really nothing new at all. Nor is it particularly novel how each side has tried to demonize the other or assail the character of certain ideologues within their parties. Whether one sees it as an example of democracy at its worst or at its best, the no holds barred and take no prisoners kind of donnybrooking that’s been going on in Washington D.C. the past several weeks is, as the record amply testifies, the way democracy has always been practiced in America.

After they’re through pummeling one another over the issues, just as when they first aspire to secure office, it’s completely predictable that leaders on both sides will start talking of unity. They’ll tout the ideal of “coming together” for the sake of the country. After all, it’s our love of country that should unite us all, right? But history also shows us that within a democracy, divided government is actually a good thing most of the time. Too much power and too much license to act unopposed almost always adversely affects under-protected minorities. So it’s good to have “checks and balances” on political power, and not just the formal ones between the branches of government. But, just because there will always necessarily be division over principles and policies doesn’t mean we can’t be civil in our debates and constructive as opposed to obstructive or destructive in our advocacy. At least, that’s the way it can and should go in theory. The problem is, at least according to history, that’s just not the American way.

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