Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Back in my day, politics was so much more civil.”
If you pay any attention to America’s army of unqualified political commentators (that includes me), then you’ve likely heard some refrain about how if both sides would only talk it out, things would be just spiffy.
They say the problem is that we no longer look for political compromises. Nobody is willing to reach across the aisle and open a dialogue. That may be true, but that sentiment assumes compromise is an inherently good thing, which it is not. If you need any proof, go find out where the phrase “split the baby” came from.
However unprecedented this season of heightened political vitriol and violence may seem, it is nothing new, and I do not believe a lack of civility is the source of our increasing political divide. America has always been a nation that hotly and sometimes violently settled political beef.
Founding father and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel by the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr, in 1804. Their duel was the bloody climax of the 1804 New York gubernatorial race, where Hamilton viciously attacked Burr, a candidate, in the press.
Several years later, Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke engaged in a bloody brawl with Rep. Willis Alston in a U.S. House stairwell.
In the infamous election of 1828, John Quincey Adams’ supporters in the media published sensational and defamatory stories about the romantic life of Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel. Jackson believed the stories caused the heart condition that took Rachel’s life in December 1828.
In 1859, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colombia, Philip Barton Key, was murdered by U.S. Rep. Dan Sickles just across the street from the White House.
My point is not to excuse a little misbehavior but rather to illustrate that there was never a past where American politicians behaved like perfect little schoolchildren, sitting around the faculty lounge politely deliberating their personal and political conflicts. So, if mudslinging, violence, and attacks in the media are nothing new, why do our recent politics feel so different?
I think what Americans are noticing is a serious philosophical rift in the country. It feels like both sides are simply talking past each other because they are. Today's hot-button issues are not questions about the application of the law or how best to govern within the American system. America’s leaders are having serious debates about topics as fundamental as what a woman is and when human life begins.
It is impossible to seriously discuss American governance when one side appeals to our founding documents and the other derides them as the outdated thinking of old white men desperately needing replacement. We are moving away from debates about the interpretation and application of the Constitution to questioning its legitimacy altogether.
The transgender debates are probably the most obvious evidence of America’s polar thinking. If you believe that men can become women, that these men should compete against women in athletics to the detriment of female athletes, and that children should go on puberty blockers and later have life-altering sex change surgeries, you and I don’t just have a minor difference of opinion. We look at the world in entirely different ways.
I am not smart enough to tell you what caused this rift in philosophy, but anyone can see it is bad news. I am not saying people cannot disagree, but for any nation to survive, its people must share some values that serve as the foundation of society and can be appealed to and respected. If this goes away, we will be left with disparate cultures battling for power instead of a unified nation that preserves our founding ideals.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com.
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