In the presidential election of 1800, John Adams’ camp, through the Connecticut Courant newspaper, said that should Thomas Jefferson win the presidency, the United States would become a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”
Jefferson’s camp in turn accused Adams of being a “gross hypocrite” and “one of the most egregious fools on the continent.”
Contrary to the common cries of “It’s never been worse,” politics has always been personal, passionate and contentious. The vitriol we experience today is hardly unique to present-day America.
This is not to say we should be unconcerned. Many Americans are justifiably troubled; a recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that 91 percent of Americans view the lack of civility in politics as a serious problem. And it is undoubtedly true that disgust with the state of politics discourages some citizens from engaging in the political process, whether by performing public service, running for office, or even simply voting.
Many say the culprit is social media. The internet has provided seemingly kind, normal Americans the distance and anonymity to make cruel and disparaging remarks about people they might otherwise like in person.
Others cite the fact that there’s no longer a Walter Cronkite to whom all Americans turn to get their facts. Cable television now allows Americans to listen to and absorb only the “facts” we care to hear. That’s unhealthy.
A more recent phenomenon is that more Americans are choosing to live only among those with the same viewpoint. According to a 2016 Pew study, between 1992 and 2012, polarization increased by 29 percent across census regions, and all but three states saw an increase in geographic polarization.
These are unsettling realities, and they do differentiate the current turbulence from the past. However, not all is lost.
We are picking up signals from across the country that people may be reaching the tipping point.
Earlier this year, we and our colleagues on the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Governors’ Council hosted an event with academic, business, state, local and community leaders from across the country who are launching campaigns to moderate civic disagreement. None of these efforts aim to gloss over differences or force everyone to the political middle. Instead, they urge people to agree to disagree respectfully, just as the Founders did time and time again.
America’s Founders may have been political enemies but – critical for the nation’s future – they believed in working together.
The two chambers of Congress are themselves a compromise between the large and small states. The Electoral College was a compromise between those who favored the direct election of the president and those who opposed it. Had they each gone into the Constitutional Convention refusing to negotiate, the United States would have collapsed under the Articles of Confederation.
The two of us are familiar with what it takes to overcome such divides and produce action for the people who elected us. For instance, Republican Gov. Heineman worked with members of both political parties in the Nebraska legislature to lower taxes, balance the budget, invest in the education of our children, improve our infrastructure and increase job opportunities for our citizens.
In 2013, Gov. Beebe, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, worked with a Republican legislature in a bipartisan effort on Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act. The General Assembly, with a required 75 percent super majority, authorized funding for the Arkansas Private Option. This approach used federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance policies for Arkansans below 138 percent of the poverty level. This meant that more than 100,000 Arkansans kept their health insurance, tens of thousands more became insured, and hundreds of millions of federal dollars benefited the state’s economy. The creation of a bipartisan coalition in Arkansas allowed the passage of Medicaid expansion and still offers a model for good governance.
The steps we’re taking with our colleagues and the Bipartisan Policy Center to model a functioning public discourse are small, to be sure, but vital in our eyes.
It is no longer sufficient to lament the sorry state of political discourse, and we must all resist the urge to disengage in disgust. The way to weather the current storms is to re-engage, embracing our nation’s rich history of vigorous debate and civic disagreement. Thomas Jefferson would have approved.
David Heineman, a Republican, served as the 39th governor of Nebraska from 2005 to 2015. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, served as the 45th governor of Arkansas from 2007 to 2015. Both are members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Governors’ Council.
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