Have we reached the limits of partisanship?
To the Editor:
Last year Ezra Klein published a book entitled “Why We’re Polarized.” He traced the history of partisanship, explaining the ways parties have evolved, the changing role of the media, and the crucial influence of identity politics.
The horrifying events on Capitol Hill on January 6 were the culmination of this corrosive process that has made many Americans come to fear each other, hate the other side, and refuse to listen to people with whom they disagree. In such a climate, demagoguery and big lies can lead to disaster.
In his speech urging Congress to certify the election result, Mitch McConnell said: “We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities, with nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.”
The most fundamental of those institutions is democracy, which requires that we agree that truth matters and that the best interests of the country can be determined through dialogue and even robust debate over policy. But this system will not work if we believe that all the good ideas are on one side only, that the other side has no good people in it, that anybody who disagrees with us must have evil motives.
Joe Biden likes to tell the story that when he arrived in Congress, an elder statesman cautioned him not to assume that he understood the motives of those who disagreed with him. The full and touching story is easily available online. The lesson that Joe Biden learned was that you can question somebody’s judgment, but not their motives, because “when you say they’re acting out of greed, they’re in the pocket of an interest group, et cetera, it’s awful hard to reach consensus. It’s awful hard having to reach across the table and shake hands. No matter how bitterly you disagree, though, it is always possible if you question judgment and not motive.”
We volunteer with an organization called Citizens’ Climate Lobby that works for a bipartisan solution to climate change. We value bipartisanship because passing laws in Congress requires cooperation. Even though Democrats (who are more likely to support climate legislation) have a slight majority in the House, passing a climate bill in the Senate will require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But beyond that purely practical consideration, we believe in bipartisanship because it will bring about a better and longer-lasting law.
Climate change is a difficult problem. Solving it requires a national solution. We cannot force people to believe as we do. We must persuade them that it is in the best interest of this country to put a price on carbon. If we believe in the institutions of this country, if we believe that the interests of the whole are more important than the interests of a minority, if we believe that democracy can work if we work at it, then we must embrace bipartisanship.
By working together, we can solve difficult problems. The alternative approach of denying reality, undermining the fundamental institutions of America, and believing that people can be forced to do our bidding through intimidation and force resulted in the events of January 6. We must reject that route and embrace bipartisanship. We hope the shocking events have shown members of both political parties that we must learn to work together again. The future of our country and the future of our planet are at stake.
PA State College
(Both Morrison and Neely are members of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby)