Love and marriage, as the old ditty has it, may not always go together, but incivility and polarization sure go hand in hand in contemporary American politics. It’s virtually impossible to separate them. More importantly, it has led to chronic dysfunctionality in government.
Recently, in a rare moment, the Pennsylvania state party chairs, Democrat Nancy Patton Mills, and Republican Val DiGigiorgio, agreed to participate in a student-organized forum on civil discourse and polarization at Franklin & Marshall College.
What happened at the forum is revealing. Both party leaders decried the lack of civil discourse and urged compromise as a way forward. They agreed that progress is virtually impossible to achieve if polarization and fierce partisanship leads to meaningless and constant attacks on one another.
The fixedness of party policy positions became immediately evident when health care, climate change and gun control came up; where differences exist between Democrats and Republicans on these and many other issues, compromise is virtually impossible to achieve.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when the GOP party head altered his tone on compromise, complaining bitterly about the treatment of Donald Trump, charging that Democrats have been much less compromising than Republicans.
Chronic and corrosive polarization has transformed us into a bifurcated nation across a spectrum of issues, personalities and fundamental values. We agree to disagree on almost everything — and we are no longer agreeable about it. Indeed, incivility now permeates our national dialogue, compounding the political polarization underlying it.
Worse, perhaps, the historically hallowed notion of compromise underlying our federal system of separation of powers is increasingly an object of contempt and scorn.
There is no ambiguity about the toxic consequences of polarization: government gridlock, flawed policies, growing chaos in our institutions and alienated voters. If united we stand and divided we fall, the future looms as a wobbly one.
The problem is a fundamental one. The electorate and the politicians they elect have discovered ideology — both “right wing” and “left wing” varieties — often locking both voters and elected officials into rigid inflexible pre-formed thinking that sneers at the compromise and bargaining that have governed politics in earlier eras.
Extreme politics and ideological thinking have always existed in American politics — but usually at the margins of the political dialogue and power. For much of American history, politics has played out toward the center of the political spectrum orchestrated mostly by moderate and centrists willing to seek consensus among competing interests.
Those politicians are gone, that electorate is gone and increasingly America’s ability to govern itself is gone.
Ultimately, we must decide whether to continue down the road we are on — away from consensus politics and stable governing — or we must turn back toward the moderate-centrist politics that allowed the country to thrive for almost 2½ centuries.
There is no third choice.
G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young is a speaker, pollster, author and former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State.