Editorial July 11, 2014

Are We Doomed to Polarization?

By Lee H. Hamilton

“…Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe.”



We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.

The reason for this dissatisfaction is clear. Polls in recent years detail a polarized nation, divided both ideologically and politically. This is, as the Pew Research Center put it recently, “a defining feature of politics today.” In the public’s eye, Washington gets most of the blame for this.
Yet Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe. Our nation is divided ideologically. It’s also segregated politically, with many Americans preferring to associate with and live near people who share their views; gerrymandered districts and closed primaries intensify the effect. Our media is more partisan than it used to be. Interest groups — many of them funded by ordinary Americans who want their voices magnified — are more engaged than they were a generation ago. And though we deplore negative politics, we respond to it and even encourage our favorite partisans to engage in it.
Anyone who becomes President today does so with nearly half the country opposed to him the day he takes office. Moreover, we face a long list of issues where decisive action may be impossible: abortion, gun control, climate change, a host of budgetary and economic problems, the death penalty, tax reform, immigration, drug laws. These issues don’t just divide Congress; they divide the nation, with no clear path forward.
Our admired political system, in other words, is not working well. In Pew’s survey, the extremes make up just over a third of the American public, but because they’re disproportionately active they drive our politics. The larger, more diverse center can’t agree on a direction for the country, but its members are united by their distaste for the tone of politics and the unwillingness of politicians to compromise and break the stalemate. We are not getting the politics we want.
So how do we resolve our dilemma?
There are many procedural steps that can ease the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Among them, the House and Senate could schedule themselves so that they’re in session at the same time. Congressional leaders and the President ought to meet at least once a month. Congress needs to work the same five-day week that the rest of us do, and reduce its centralized leadership by empowering committees. Open primaries would help moderate the nation’s politics, as would bipartisan redistricting commissions capable of doing away with gerrymandered districts. Increasing voter participation and improving the integrity of our elections would also help. Limiting the Senate filibuster and allowing minority parties in both chambers more of an opportunity to offer amendments, would open up debate and forestall endless stalemates.
But resolving our dilemma is unlikely to happen quickly. It’s hard to see either side in this partisan divide winning or losing decisively in the elections immediately ahead. Even if one party wins both houses in Congress, it’s not easy to move when the White House is in the control of another party. With the need for 60 votes in the Senate, the minority party can always find ways to slow things down.
Still, it’s worth remembering that American politics is dynamic, not static. Change occurs, sometimes quickly, but more often slowly. We won’t forever be this evenly divided, because public opinion will eventually evolve and the system will respond.
Which raises my final point. Even when our frustration with division and discord spills over into impatience with the system itself, our obligations as American citizens remain the same. We face complex problems that don’t have simple solutions. They demand a willingness to exercise the values of representative democracy: tolerance, mutual respect, accepting ideological differences, working to build consensus.
Our core values accept that the differences in opinions among us will continue, but also compel us to find a way through them so the country can move forward. By accepting the challenges that come with living in a representative democracy and renewing our confidence in it, we can lay the groundwork for change. In the end, we created our political dilemma and are responsible for working our way through it.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Near Death in the Senate: 1851

Caning of Sumner credit: (NY Public Library)

Caning of Sumner
credit: (NY Public Library)

On May 22, 1856, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became a combat zone.  In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate’s entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness.

The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state.  In his “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.  He characterized Douglas to his face as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.”  Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment.  Mocking the South Carolina senator’s stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”

Representative Preston Brooks was Butler’s South Carolina kinsman.  If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel.  Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs.  Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head.  As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself.  After a very long minute, it ended.

Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away.  Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers.  Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions.

Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and soon thereafter died at age 37.  Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years.  The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.

Reference Items:

Donald, David.  Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man.  New York, Knopf, 1970.

Potter, David M.  The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861.  New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Courtesy Senate Historian


The Senate and the 13th Amendment (Slavery)

The 13th Amendment, Markup

The 13th Amendment, Markup

The 2012 film Lincoln told the story of President Abraham Lincoln and the final month of debate over the Thirteenth Amendment, leading to its passage by the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865. What the film did not portray, however, was the Senate’s part of that story.

While Lincoln waited until late 1864 to publicly support an abolition amendment (while quietly supporting it behind the scenes), Radical Republicans like Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner and Ohio representative James Ashley called for such action in 1863. Sumner and his allies applauded Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but they believed the wartime measure did not go far enough. Instead, they demanded what they termed a “constitutional guarantee” of “perpetual freedom.” Such debates—barely hinted at in the movie—shaped the language of the amendment and influenced an evolving definition of equality.

In late 1863 Sumner became chairman of a new committee on slavery, where he hoped to consider all proposals for abolition. On February 8, 1864, he introduced his own constitutional amendment, asking that it be referred to his committee. Judiciary Committee chairman Lyman Trumbull objected, insisting instead that his committee must consider such proposals. The Senate sided with Trumbull. Sumner’s radical views stirred action, but they also made enemies. “If I could cut the throats of about half a dozen senators,” confessed William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, “Sumner would be the first victim.” Many supporters of an abolition amendment feared that any association with Sumner could undermine success.

By January of 1864 the Senate Judiciary Committee was debating and drafting the amendment. Sumner’s proposal for absolute “equality before the law” was rejected. Making all persons “equal before the law,” argued one senator, might lead to dangerous consequences, such as providing voting rights to women. Instead, the committee approved more modest language that echoed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

On February 10, 1864, Trumbull reported the amendment out of committee and full Senate debate began. Fears of race-mixing and social upheaval—issues that figured prominently in the later House debate—were largely absent. Rather, senators argued over the constitutionality of uncompensated emancipation, the nature of federalism, and the propriety of adopting the first constitutional amendment in 60 years. A few radicals sought ways to empower the freedmen with civil and economic rights, but most senators agreed that abolition alone was the goal. “We give the [black man] no right except his freedom,” explained Missouri Senator John Henderson. “[We] leave the rest to the states.”

On April 8, 1864, the Senate took the first crucial step towards the constitutional abolition of slavery. Before a packed gallery, a strong coalition of 30 Republicans, four border-state Democrats, and four Union Democrats joined forces to pass the amendment 38 to 6. In the months that followed, two test votes failed in the House and the amendment was sidelined by the national election. Then, in December, representatives convened a lame duck session to renew the debate. This set the stage for action in January of 1865 by the newly reelected Abraham Lincoln. That is where the movie begins. ##

Courtesy Senate Historian