The Divided States of America
Alot of effort and enterprise has gone into speculating about whether the U.S. Senate will change from majority Democratic to majority Republican after the November elections. I’ve taken part in that punditry in these pages. In fact, the change, if it happens, will create a new and important dynamic in the nation’s capital that’s worth paying attention to. A whole new set of chairmen of powerful standing committees in the Senate will alter the national agenda in both large and small, but significant, ways.
But an additional truism needs to be told: Whichever way the Senate turns on Nov. 4, it won’t be by very much. In a purely partisan sense, the United States is narrowly divided and the outcome in Senate elections will bear that out. The Senate may end up being 52 Democrats and 48 Republicans or the other way around. It could also be closer than that. It likely won’t be overwhelmingly controlled by either party, and that’s the state of America these days. Only on a few, selected issues can the partisan labels be ripped away and can anything close to a consensus be attained.
The divided state of America has taken a lot of the mystery out of presidential elections. Most states are reliably blue or red, so only a handful of marginal states decide the outcome. Very few House districts are up for grabs in a partisan sense. Primary contests that pit Republican against Republican or Democrat against Democrat decide who will be the next congressman in the bulk of congressional districts. As we’ve read so often in the past, this trend has been exaggerated and perpetuated by an increasingly opinionated media and the gerrymandering of congressional district boundaries to favor one political party over the other.
Sometimes the division isn’t so stark, though. A few issues break the pattern. One such issue will eventually be immigration. The nagging controversy over immigration has the elements that make it ripe for change. Immigration is a real problem that’s widely perceived as such. That’s the formula for breaking free of partisan disagreement and finding compromise. Certainly, Democrats and Republicans disagree for the moment, but each side has good reason to relent. Democrats have promised to create a path to citizenship for illegal aliens for years and have been unable to deliver, while Republicans need to find a way to remove the issue from the national agenda or else cede the fast-growing Hispanic vote to the other party. Watch for gridlock to be broken on immigration starting next year — despite the many naysayers.
The other big issue that transcends partisanship is the war on terrorism. President Obama’s recent speech at the United Nations could have been delivered by Donald Rumsfeld. That’s right, pacifists and avid warriors have to agree. No matter how much the president wishes that he could end military action against extremists in the Middle East, he cannot avoid reality. A few well-organized groups are out to kill us. It’s that simple. We can either be killed or fight back. There isn’t a choice that partisan preferences can overcome. Mr. Obama is a war president the way his successors are likely to be — whether they want the job or not.
The pabulum of election season glibly decries the deep disagreements that exist between Republicans and Democrats. The Founding Fathers would chuckle at the rhetoric. Passionate disputes are as old as humanity, and pretending they don’t exist is foolish. The fact that the disagreements divide the country so nearly in half is remarkable and worth studying, but it shouldn’t be a surprise.
What needs to be kept in mind as we get closer to the elections is that focusing on the disagreements hampers our understanding of public policy. We should keep our eyes on the exceptions that unite us, not the ideologies that divide us. Those are the ones that will create change despite the gridlock elsewhere. The federal government’s system of checks and balances was designed to allow only those very few issues on which consensus could be found to make their way into law. Those issues still exist today as they did at the beginning of our republic.