Signs of our societal divisions are everywhere. Our political parties are at odds, our media is divided, and our citizens aren’t only divided, they are sorting themselves out between red and blue states.
One other sure sign of the magnitude of our divisions is the disappearance of the political middle—the loss of bipartisanship.
There is a reason, and the government is at the center of it.
Division among us is rising in significant part because the stakes are rising as our government makes an ever-larger number of decisions—each of which requires a winner, a loser, and someone to pay for it. As it does, it sets off a competition for the spoils of government. Throughout history, the greater the stakes—the greater the political division.
For instance, the colonists were deeply divided over breaking away from England. The enormous stakes, i.e., war with England and total societal disruption, produced not only intense political debates, but also a divided media and rhetoric that demonized King George III on one hand, and accused colonists of treason on the other.
Our differences were so intense that historians and the likes of Gen. Marquis de Lafayette referred to the ensuing revolution as America’s first civil war. Nearly 100 years later, during the run-up to what we officially call the Civil War, the differences were so intense that President Abraham Lincoln received repeated death threats, not to mention poisoned food as “gifts.” Certain Southern partisans were so intense they were called “fire breathers” and the South greeted Lincoln’s new presidency with the ultimate resistance—secession.
We know that in the end, the differences were so great and the stakes so high, that war wasn’t avoided in either case. It must be noted, however, that in both cases, there were efforts to avoid war. Prominent Americans engaged in the process of extending olive branches to their political opposition in an effort to compromise.
In the first case, after the “shot heard round the world,” the vast majority of Americans wanted to avoid an all-out war with England, while Samuel Adams and John Otis did their best to inflame passions. Congress featured members on both sides of the issue.
At one point, a committee, with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Rutledge, William Livingston, and future first Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, was assembled in an attempt to compromise with King George. Today, those people likely would be labeled moderates—standing between King George and Samuel Adams. When the Continental Congress turned down their first efforts towards what came to be known as “The Olive Branch Petition,” no less than Thomas Jefferson was added to the committee, along with another “moderate,” John Dickinson.
The revised Olive Branch Petition offered King George a compromise. The king rejected the petition and later declared the colonists to be in open rebellion—thereby raising the stakes.
As those stakes rose, the moderates in Congress lost their arguments to those inflamed by King George and Samuel Adams. That cleared the way for the Declaration of Independence and more highly partisan actions by the likes of Franklin and Jefferson.
After Lincoln’s election, the U.S. political system was deeply polarized. Many in the South viewed Lincoln as a threat to their way of life, and believed they had everything to lose. The North believed itself to be morally right; the South began to secede. The North mobilized itself after the election intellectually as to how to confront secession. Soon, they would have to mobilize militarily.
Along the way, Congress became gridlocked. As it did, the period between Lincoln’s November election and when he took office in March saw a flurry of activity by leaders and partisans, as well as moderates seeking compromise.
Chief among those seeking compromise was Kentucky Sen. John J. Crittenden. On Dec. 18, 1860, he introduced what history knows as the Crittenden Compromise. In offering his “compromise,” Crittenden played the role of Continental Congressman Joseph Galloway, who had hoped for “temper and moderation,” during the run-up to the Revolution.
The principled Lincoln, however, wasn’t willing to make a compromise that extended slavery into more territories. As the stakes rose between his election in November and taking office in March of the next year, moderation once again dissipated.
It isn’t always that way in America. During the Era of Good Feelings, President James Monroe ran for re-election unopposed. He did so in large part because, during his first term, Congress passed minimal legislation that could divide people. Instead, he focused on a national goal of opening the west, which created economic opportunity. So little differences were created that Monroe could withstand the Missouri Compromise on slavery (division on the issue was far from its peak) and still run unopposed.
America today is not as divided as during those times and not anywhere as unified as under Monroe. However, federal government expenditures alone have exploded 300 percent (using constant dollars) since President Ronald Reagan said that government isn’t the solution to our problems. Overall, the government spends 37 percent of our economy and imposes well over $2 trillion in regulatory costs—which combined represent half the economy. Beyond that, our courts are deciding massive issues like the fate of Obamacare and social-justice issues such as the definition of marriage.
Today, the Democratic Party and its supporters are largely focused on the government half of the economy, while Republicans focus mainly on the private sector. With priorities so directly at odds and so very far apart, the canyon is widening between the parties. As a result, there are fewer and fewer issues on which compromise is possible, while the stakes are rising.
So, when the next election outcome matters more than current policy—as with the border wall—total party discipline is viewed as a necessity. Little wonder, therefore, that during the Obama presidency, no Republican voted for the $800 billion stimulus bill, and during this Trump presidency, nary a Democrat will vote for a Trump judicial nominee.
In sum, as the size and power of the government has grown, so have the stakes. As the stakes grow, now as before and not coincidentally, we have also seen the disappearance of the political middle in both parties. It should be a simple lesson to understand, that if we continue to enlarge the government, we can expect more of the same.
This article is adapted from “The Divided Era: How We Got Here and the Keys to America’s Reconciliation” (Greenleaf Group Book Press: 2015). Thomas Del Beccaro is the author of “The Divided Era” and is a former chairman of the California Republican Party.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.