Fourteen years ago, Barack Obama rose to national prominence endorsing John Kerry with a Democratic National Convention speech in which he declared, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s a United States of America.” At a time when political polarization looked like a growing issue for people across the country, the message resonated. Yet since then, partisan polarization has only grown, becoming a defining feature of our politics and government. Now, as midterm elections draw near, the speech seems almost dangerously naïve.
This rise of polarization has not been an accidental shift brought on by the rise of new technology or changes in the American lifestyle. It has not been a tit-for-tat escalation contributed to by both parties. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Republican leaders, who have uniformly and consistently violated long-held legislative norms for explicitly partisan gain. And their embrace of the politics of division now demands we vote them out.
While the seeds of Republican drives towards polarization have been evident for decades in hanging chads, mid-decade redistricting and more, it reached new heights in 2008. Faced with a historically popular president who captured more than twice the electoral votes than his opponent, a seven-point popular vote advantage and the most votes of any president in history (a record which still stands), Congressional Republicans agreed to follow a policy of “united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies” at the onset of one of the worst recessions in American history, which was already beginning to necessitate a government response.
Committed to this opposition, Republicans engaged in eight years of increasingly toxic and extreme policies to stymie the Democrats wherever they could. The shockingly extreme response to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, derogatively termed “Obamacare” by Republicans, is an excellent example. Modeled around the individual mandate system proposed by The Heritage Foundation in 1989, similar systems had been proposed by Republican Senators in 1993 and implemented by Republican governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, the bill was designed to attract bipartisan support. Yet the bill ended up barely passing, doing so without any Republican support (even from those who had supported similar bills from prior administration). Republicans did the same to the stimulus package which ended up being an integral part of the economy’s recovery from the 2008 recession, attempting to stop government action to deny Obama any accomplishment. These obstructions did not come out of disagreement with Democrats as to the best course of action. They did not attempt to amend the bills or compromise. They merely voted against anything Obama, attempting to paint him and the Democrats in the worst light possible.
In the 2010 midterm campaign, McConnell said his most important goal was to limit Obama to one term. Explaining his strategy to do so, he pointed out that if Americans thought the government was functioning, they might support the administration in power. Late Republican Senator George Voinovich later explained his party made a practice out of being against anything Obama supported. The pattern was repeated for the entirety of Obama’s presidency. Forty-one percent of Democratic congress-people voted for Bush’s large legislative proposals. Six percent of Republicans voted for Obama’s.
And it goes beyond simple refusal to vote with the opposite party. In 2010, the Republican party implemented the “ReDistricting Majority Project,” or REDMAP, an ongoing effort to increase Republican control of legislatures through explicitly partisan gerrymandering. They refused to support any leadership appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the National Labor Relations Board simply because they opposed the agency’s existence. They repeatedly threatened to default on the national debt, an unprecedented and clearly dangerous strategy, even forcing a government shutdown over the issue. They used the filibuster roughly twice as much previous minority parties.
Notably, almost half of all executive and judicial nomination filibusters occurred under Obama. Twenty out of 23 district court nominees who saw their appointment filibustered were appointed by Obama. In 2013, they attempted to “unpack” the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which consists of 11 members, by vowing to prevent any judges from being appointed when three vacancies left the court with a 4-4 partisan split. This attempt to illegally change the number of judges on a court forced Senate majority Leader Harry Reid to invoke the “nuclear” option to remove the ability to filibuster executive appointments, notably keeping in the ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominees.
This invoking of the “nuclear” option has been held up as an example of unprecedented Democratic actions by those who seek to cast both parties as equally responsible for the current polarization. This is a false equivalency. Reid’s change to the rules was necessitated by the refusal of Republicans to cooperate. In fact, according to an analysis by Columbia Law Review, Democratic “constitutional hardball” moves, exceedingly rare when compared to the Republicans’, are almost always a necessary response to Republicans and followed by Democratic efforts to restore normal order. Obama, for example, largely nominated neutral judges with his new simple majority power. He continued this policy when he nominated Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by Scalia’s death, only to be met with the Republican’s final and most infuriating obstruction: a simple refusal to consider filling the vacancy for more than 300 days. The action was unprecedented, damaging to the normal functioning of our government and transparently partisan. Garland was a bipartisan olive branch, previously held up by leaders from both parties as a neutral judge, but received by Republicans who called for voters to have a more direct voice on the Supreme Court (and then complained the Court was becoming politicized).
The consequences of this universal opposition strategy have been significant. On a purely partisan basis, it has been a success for Republicans who won back the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016. Yet in the process of implementing the strategy, the Republicans warped their party to the point where they elected Donald Trump, a man with no political experience, a habit of lying, strong ties to foreign enemies, a history of sexual assault and deeply racist attitudes, to the most powerful position in the land. To the point, Roy Moore won a decently competitive primary campaign. There are now Republicans running for general election in the midterms who deny the Holocaust, refer to their black opponents as monkeys and more.
The Republicans’ policies of obstruction and polarization have led them down a path into hatred and appealing to the worst elements of American society. Yet they have been rewarded at the polls for doing so and have only accelerated in this direction as time has gone on.
We must stop this trend as soon as possible. For ten years, Republicans have refused to meaningfully challenge their leadership’s policies or change their party’s course. Any Republican vote is a vote for polarization and a vote encouraging Republicans to continue becoming more hateful.
Vote in November, and vote Democratic.