Editor's note: This essay is adapted from a talk that Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, gave last week as part of a Florida Humanities Council program in Dunedin.
American politics is in a sorry state. We're confronting some of the most significant issues in our nation's history, and yet the candidates, voters and media concentrate on the trivial.
Even the debates. We hear far more about who was too emotional, who had no energy, who laughed too much, who looked down at their notes, who was rude, who drank too much water, who "won," than who has the best plan for America.
Politics and politicians appear increasingly irrelevant. Gridlock and polarization have led to paralysis. Only one out of 10 Americans think Congress is doing a good job, and I wonder what those people are smoking. Both parties have put personal interest ahead of the needs of the nation.
I use to tell my political science students that politics came from the ancient Greek word "poly" meaning "many" and "tics" meaning "ugly bloodsucking parasites." Thirty-five years ago, most of my students laughed. In recent years, they were busy writing it in their notes because they had no reason to disbelieve it.
What candidates and voters of both parties have done is to stereotype their opponents. In fact, both Republicans and Democrats view the other party as their enemy. And no one negotiates with the enemy. Stereotyping is the tool of the lazy person unwilling to actually talk to those with differing views. It is easier just to dismiss the other side as evil.
The Partisan Polarization Index from the Gallup Organization measures the gap between partisan support of the president. From Eisenhower to Carter, the gap averaged 34 points. (Democrats rated Democratic presidents more highly than Republicans, and Republicans rated Republican presidents more highly than Democrats.) From Reagan to George W. Bush the spread was 55 points. For President Obama, the Polarization Index just released is 82 points. Almost all Democrats rated Obama highly, and almost all Republicans ranked Obama poorly. The Polarization Index has never been greater.
Why? Probably the most important factor is that the rules of the game have changed in Congress. For most of the 20th century the standard operating procedure was to get along, go along. Compromise was the norm.
This all changed in the 1980s when Newt Gingrich was elected Republican House minority leader. Gingrich and other Republicans believed that compromising with Democrats did nothing but make Democrats look good and the Republicans the permanent minority. Gingrich and the Republicans decided to oppose the Democrats on virtually everything. The era of compromise was over.
Compromise was out, replaced by obstruction. Parties became more ideological. Those who did not follow the party line were likely to find themselves facing opposition from their own party. As a result, there are fewer moderates in both parties, and compromise is even more difficult.
When I started teaching in the early 1970s, most Americans complained that there was "not a dime's worth of difference" between the parties. Voters wanted their party to stand on principle. As they say, be careful what you wish for. Now, compromise is now a sign of weakness, and gridlock rules the day.
There is security in listening only to views that reinforce our existing beliefs, but there is no intellectual growth. Are Republicans and Democrats so insecure that they are afraid to have their beliefs challenged? No contact and no communication with our opponents equals no understanding and no progress.
And yet, compromise is the essence of democracy. Maybe the other side really has a better idea or something important to add to the conversation. We should start listening more and talking less. We must end our self-imposed political segregation if we really expect to solve the problems of America.
And if we refuse? As a young Abe Lincoln warned, America's demise would not come at the hand of any foreign power, but from within: "If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time or die by suicide."
It is not too late. But dusk is approaching.