On Partisan Politics

Do Republicans and Democrats really respect each other?

Posted Feb 15, 2009

Isn't this supposed to be the United States of America?  The united part seems to be endangered as we watch partisan politics play out in Washington. 

The recent votes on the stimulus package were cast explicitly along party lines.  Such partisanship sends a message of failed cooperation among our leaders that detracts from the successful passage of the bill. 

If our legislators honestly can agree only with members of their own party as to the strengths and weaknesses of the stimulus package, then the dramatic disagreement across parties as to the bill's merits is quite worrisome.  If, however, our legislators believe that voting with their own political party and against the opposition is more important than seriously considering the merits of the bill, are they not putting partisan politics ahead of the national interest?  Either possibility undermines trust in our leaders and what they tell us. 

Few natural events -- including strictly partisan votes -- can be neatly explained according to a single level of analysis such as an in terms of the political forces at work.  Although I grant the political and other social forces in play, I believe there may be forces emanating from individual personalities that make such group behavior more likely. 

For example, I am concerned that perhaps we have become a nation of people so disrespectful of one anothers' beliefs that we have lost the habit of respecting those with whom we disagree.  Rather, we prefer to demean others so as make ourselves look better, or to amuse one another, or simply because it is so much easier than seeing the other person's point of view. 

If I were a member of the legislative branch and I truly, deeply respected those on the other side of the aisle, I believe I would be deeply disturbed by the sort of inter-party attacks and struggles that are currently taking place.  Many national legislators have spoken of their political principles in the past weeks, but what about their personal principles of respecting not only those with whom they agree, but also those with whom they disagree?

If members of Congress and the executive branch extended genuine respect to one another, wouldn't they recognize that it is more important to vote for that which is best for the country rather than for that which may promote their political party?  If they truly respected one another, wouldn't the best and brightest among them join in a thoughtful give-and-take to promote good legislation above partisanship?

I hope I am wrong that our lawmakers are so partisan that it is interfering with their ability to work together.  I hope I am wrong that our lawmakers see one another as opponents first and citizen-leaders of this nation second.  I further hope that those lawmakers are behaving on behalf of us all in ways that perhaps I, as a non-politician and Washington outsider, cannot discern.  

If, however, I am correct that this partisanship is both excessive and weakens our nation, then I ask our lawmakers to remember their personal as well as their political principles. 

I would ask both our legislators and we ourselves to respect and judge charitably others' motives and beliefs. I realize that to make judgments that are sympathetic and charitable in these times may not feel either natural or easy, particularly when the media regularly report on various individuals' corrupt and illegal behaviors.  Nonetheless there are many reasons wise people from many cultures extol the virtues of judging with care.  (If we are worried about corruption, instead of condemning everyone, let us enhance our enforcement agencies, and vote out problematic leaders).  

There are gains for us all when we extend respect to those with other political opinions.  After all, to answer my opening question, this is the United States, and with the good work of our leaders, it will remain so in the future. 

Unity doesn't require agreement on all counts, but it does require a personal reaching out, a mental effort to understand the other and to find common ground.  There are times when other people are so dangerous and potentially destructive that compromising is not an option.  That is not the case, however, with the Republicans, Democrats, and Independents currently in Congress. 

What is required in crafting legistlation is finding common ground.  What makes that so challenging at the personal level, however, is that the best compromises often require us to question our own beliefs and our own ideas, to realize that we ourselves are as prone to be mistaken as the next person. Although such self-awarness is challenging, it allows us to better understand what is really more open to pragmatic negotiation than might first appear to be the case.

There are, of course, many political forces that have led to (what I regard as) overly partisan politics, such as the nature of electoral districts, and national tradition.  Those political forces, however, do not act by themselves.  They cannot be divorced from influences originating at other levels, such as the individual and personal. 

Personally, I think this would be a good time to see members of congress working together effectively and generously.  Even if the opposing parties weren't able to fashion a good compromise now, increasing such bipartisanship today could lead to better legislation tomorrow. 

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Caveat Emptor: The author is a psychologist and possesses no special political expertise.  This post represents his personal opinion as a citizen and a voter.