The American writer Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, once responded to reports about his alleged demise by saying “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Following this week’s Presidential election, reports on the polarization of American society can also be described with a similar message: they are greatly exaggerated.
The American citizenry can be better defined as three hundred million plus individuals arguing and debating over everything deemed of importance, no matter what the subject and, sometimes, no matter what the facts are. Yet, somehow we’ve been able to look back over more than two consecutive centuries of a system of government that has managed to survive all of this noise.
The Constitution of United States begins with the words “We the People,” and Americans have spent a great deal of time since those words were written figuring out just how to make sure that the word “We” is as inclusive as it was intended to be. Further down in the first paragraph of the Constitution, the “We” proclaims what the national goals are to be, and the nation has been engaged in an ongoing argument about how to fulfill those goals ever since. We even spent four years slaughtering each other when debates were replaced by bullets in a civil war a century and a half ago. Having survived this civil war, we continued our arguments more peacefully, if not more passionately, to this day.
Alexis de Tocqueville, who authored one hundred and seventy years ago what remains one of the best analyses of America to this day, said:
“Long before the appointed moment arrives, the election becomes the greatest and so to speak the sole business preoccupying minds…The entire nation falls in to a feverish state, the election is then the daily text of the public papers, the subject of particular conversations, the goal of all reasoning, the object of all thoughts, the sole interest of the present. As soon as fortune has pronounced the Victor, this ardor is dissipated, everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed”
Today, de Tocqueville might see a different America. Now the feverish state is more of an ongoing enterprise and the river is constantly flowing at a rapid pace that is closely monitored by an insatiable 24-hour media. The entire process is driven by ambitious office seekers supported by a growing number of political organizations and interest groups financed by an enormous amount of money. Elections are a full-time endeavor embedded in a never ending campaign.
The U.S. presidential election that occurs every four years is one of the main benchmarks used to measure the political pulse of the nation. These elections help to take a snapshot of the political divisions and arguments in the policy debates of the nation. Each election cycle is x-rayed from all possible angles to detect continuity changes. By some measures there is a great deal of continuity demonstrated by the ongoing battle between two major parties for control of the White House and Congress. Who controls either end of Pennsylvania Avenue determines the course of legislative choices and the agenda of the debate about them.
Tuesday’s election underscored all of these century old trends. Indeed, the country watched a total expenditure of over $6 billion be spent on a campaign – the most expensive in U.S. history – and then voted on November 6 in a result that changed very little in the Washington political arena. Such an outcome led to those who argue that the country remains split down the middle, as was demonstrated by a popular vote divided almost in half by Obama and Romney.
Yet such an analysis is a false conclusion. The fact is that within both the Democratic and Republican Parties, there are huge differences among the groups that mobilize under those respective umbrellas every four years. Once the election is complete, these supporters go back to their respective debates and camps over the course of the next four years leading up to the subsequent presidential election. The losers lick their wounds for a while before reevaluating their party’s position as they attempt to gather their strength for the next battle. The winners gloat and savor their victory for a bit, but they then find themselves once again caught up again in trying to manage the slow-moving machinery of government.
For now, some might focus on the losers, i.e. the Republican Party, which have to come up with answers to explain why their presidential candidate lost. There is much to discuss and a lot to rethink with an eye on their next shot in 2016. However, the Democrats have gone through the same trials in the recent past. The Republican Party itself, however, was again confirmed in office in the House of Representatives with a solid majority. The Senate Democrats, on the other hand, held onto their majority to continue their debate with their Republican counterparts both in the Senate on the other side of the Capitol building.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never did so many spend so much to change so little. Or otherwise said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But if one takes a larger look at the American political system, it is not polarized around two blocks. It is fragmented around multiple arguments within and between the parties, which are made up of competing forces both in Washington and throughout a very diverse country. After all, the state of Wisconsin just elected the first lesbian Senator, whereas Texas is adding a Tea Party affiliated Senator to the Washington game. Three states approved same sex marriage while others legalized the use of marijuana. One state elected a socialist Senator while another eliminated affirmative action in state hiring. Some argue for more government while others argue for less. Some argue for freedom while others stress community. All the while, there are more and more groups in America increasing their voices in this cacophony of debate.
In fact, it is the same set of debates we’ve been having since the birth of the country. It was no less a part of the debates among the founders of the nation than it is today. All along the way, the debates have been both uplifting and ugly. What has changed is the increasing size of the “We” in the process.
The question now is whether the debates will be more driven by the system then the search for solutions. The political system can constrain solutions by creating incentives to block them. In Washington, for example, the question is whether the Republican minority in the Senate can reach compromise with the Democratic majority, or whether the possibility of gaining back enough seats to retake the Senate in 2014 will take priority as it did during the last two years. Another question is whether the members of the House of Representatives will continue to fear more for their seats being challenged in primaries during the elections of 2014 than reaching compromise in the House – with either the Senate or with the White House. The pending battle over the so called ‘fiscal cliff’ will offer the first illustration of these challenges. Politicians, including the President, can all call for compromise as they seek the higher ground. However, the proof of progress will be in the results – not in the rhetoric.
The United States is exemplifying challenges many democracies are experiencing. It is increasingly difficult to govern no matter how the system is supposed to work. What is remarkable about the American case is how wide the spectrum of the debate extends. That is not a sign of a sick country or one in decline. It is a sign that there is an energetic and extensive effort to find solutions to problems, some of which are crazy and others creative.
President Obama will now try to act as a conductor of an unruly orchestra trying to agree on the composition. It may seem pretty appalling at times, to audiences inside and outside American borders. But as Samuel Clemens also said about Richard Wagner’s music, it might be better than it sounds.