It seems almost too surreal to be true, but back in 1950, a group of America’s top political scientists got together and wrote a 98-page paper that was featured on the front page of the New York Times. Titled “Towards a More Responsible Two-Party System,” it concluded with a challenge, which today’s politically inclined would be shocked to hear: politics wasn’t partisan enough.
The contributors believed that both Republicans and Democrats were far too diverse within their parties and between them. They also castigated the parties for working so well (“too closely”) together. Why was this a bad thing? The voters were getting confused, because the parties resembled one another too much, not providing enough stark choices for the voters.
It sounds incredible, but in their way those political scientists had a point. Politics is supposed to be about choices and if the parties are always agreeing, then they hardly reflect the plurality of the population. If the choices aren’t clear, then how are people to see their own images in democracy?
In time, however, that advice became something of a curse, to the point where our present political behaviour looks more like Game of Thrones than a respectful Speech from the Throne. It’s worse in some places than others clearly, but even in more sanguine nations like Canada, the temptation to destroy our fraying cultural and political hegemony for the sake of acquiring power has frequently proved too tempting. Slowly, our political structure was being dismantled in favour of political schisms and we’ve never been quite the same.
And then came the coronavirus and everything appeared to turn on its head once again. For the first time in most people’s memory, Canada’s political parties didn’t turn their swords into plowshares, but they did place them in storage – for a time at least. There are those using the Trudeau government’s pandemic response to score cheap political advantages, but they have been roundly beaten back, even by members of the same political Conservative party.
Even south of the border, despite certain compromises between the two parties in the face of the corona crisis, there are troubling partisan trends threatening the Congressional response. As late as last week, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll revealed that just 56% of Americans consider the coronavirus a real threat. It was 66% just two weeks ago. And the number of Americans believing it’s all “blown out of proportion” is growing, not shrinking. It’s because certain Republican leaders at all levels of government have been increasingly brash in their extreme views about the pandemic. The same poll showed that the majority of Republicans think it’s all being overblown, while the vast majority of Democrats considerate it a significant threat.
There it is again: the partisan divide. Only this time the result won’t be the regular litany of political dysfunction but the loss of lives – perhaps thousands of them. No wonder we look back at that 1950 report with a certain sigh of sentimentality. To have even a smidgen of that kind of collaboration now might in fact give the non-politically-aligned Americans some hope, instead of cringing at the latest press briefings at the White House.
In Canada, parliament has been suspended for five weeks to guard against any outbreak, but the country was pleasantly surprised to see the acts of cooperation among the parties to ensure a united national front against the pandemic. In politics that simply means the willingness to refrain from overt partisan attacks – not full collaboration, but we’ll take it.
In Andrew Coyne’s recent insightful article, “Our way of life is fragile. Only trust can preserve it,” the reader is reminded that our nation was founded upon the principle of trust, and it rose to towering heights of fairness, justice and prosperity because of it. But then this:
Of all the ties that connect us, the most valuable and most fragile one is trust: that willingness, indeed, to let down our guard, to work with rather than against one another. The high degree of social trust in liberal societies – trust in the state to defend us, trust in others not to harm us – is their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Trust, however long it might have taken to form, can disappear overnight.
Sadly, the political partisanship of today, once longed for in a 1950 report, has become enough of a public cancer that it is willing to dispel that trust, do whatever it takes, to beat the other guys and claim the crown. Two things will happen if we continue on that road. First, something akin to this pandemic will inevitably occur and our country, unlike at present, won’t have the political ability to rally against it. And, second, the trust once so abundant in this country won’t be present in enough measure to help us rebuild. Thankfully, in this present crisis, we have refused to take that path.