Editor’s Note: See here for an alternative view on polarization. Point: Is Political Polarization Really So Bad?
Three weeks before Halloween in 2002, the chambers of Congress considered House Joint Resolution 114.
In non-Congress-speak, that meant the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate voted on a bill officially called the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution 2002.” If passed, that meant then-President George W. Bush would be permitted to “use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines and appropriate” against Iraq.
A total of 296 members of the House of Representatives voted for the resolution; 77 members of the Senate voted yes. That meant 68 percent of the House voted for a U.S. war against Iraq, and 77 percent of the Senate voted likewise.
The vote also meant celebrity politician Hillary Clinton, then a junior senator from New York, and time-tested Chuck Schumer, also a New York senator, had much in common with crusty veteran Mitch McConnell, a senator from Kentucky, and social conservative Rick Santorum, then a senator from Pennsylvania.
Two liberal Democrats: Clinton and Schumer. Two conservative Republicans: McConnell and Santorum.
However on Oct. 10 and 11 of 2002, that foursome all voted the same.
That meant they answered “Aye” in support of President Bush’s war to eradicate Saddam Hussein’s supposed stash of “weapons of mass destruction.”
However, suppose that Fearsome Foursome and other rivals didn’t jump into the same bed. Then, perhaps the United States wouldn’t have launched a complicated and protracted war that ultimately became a widely unpopular conflict in a foreign land. A Vietnam 2.0, in retrospect.
Perhaps, instead of congressional bipartisanship (i.e. legislative kumbaya), political polarization was needed to prevent the loss of 4,486 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, 2,345 in Afghanistan, with 1 million wounded, all at a cost of potentially $6 trillion.
Despite all of that tragic human and monetary expense, today we still must contend with ISIS. Yet, that bitter experience apparently has produced a new political polarization on war and conflict.
Presidential candidate and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who serves as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on crime and terrorism and is a member of the subcommittee on homeland security, has continuously espoused the deployment of 10,000 more ground troops in Iraq. President Obama, however, won’t heed that clarion call.
In 2002, 40 percent of House Democrats and 58 percent of Senate Democrats voted for the Iraq War, a mass military effort that lasted twice as long as World War II. Do you believe those Democratic percentages, including President Obama, would favor Sen. Graham’s stance today? Didn’t think so.
In hindsight, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll released last year, when Americans were asked if the United States should have removed all of its troops from Iraq in 2011, 65 percent of U.S. Republicans said no, while only 31 percent of Democrats agreed with them.
A stark contrast, for sure.
History has shown us that political polarization can be a positive tool when influencing and assessing the well-being of Americans.
Said Stanford University political science professor David W. Brady in an email correspondence to me, “The U.S. Congress was polarized in the Civil War era and in the New Deal era and it was via polarized voting that got the 13, 14 and 15 amendments passed as well as the Morrill Land Grant Act and other crucial legislation passed. In the New Deal era it was polarized voting that passed all of the legislation that makes up the modern welfare state — Social Security, WPA (Works Progress Administration), unemployment compensation. If you believe this was good legislation, then you believe that sometimes polarized voting does good things.”
Brady is a Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Professor of Political Science and Leadership Values and a Davies Family Senior Fellow at the conservative think tank Hoover Institution.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed, and the 15th Amendment prohibits federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
And note that the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 provided grants of land to states to finance the establishment of colleges specializing in “agriculture and the mechanic arts” and other disciplines — a piece of legislation that changed the face of education in the United States.
All noble legislative decrees, indeed.
Most of us assuredly support the positive ramifications of Social Security and unemployment compensation legislation. Just ask anyone who is retired and/or unemployed.
Political polarization also is a surefire way to induce passion among the voting ranks. Just examine the fan fervor that follows every step taken by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson. That fervor likely will translate into huge numbers at the primaries and polls come 2016.
We see a clear line of demarcation among our Republican and Democratic and independent presidential candidates, as well as their supporters. No ambiguity. No indifference. No waffling.
But we do see heightened passion and intense debate. Just check the 24 million viewers who watched the Republican debates on Fox News Channel on Aug. 6 and 23 million on CNN on Sept. 16. NFL-type Nielsen numbers for record viewing on cable news outlets. Even 14 months before the presidential election.
That’s political polarization at its best. Not its worst.