Lessons from History?

Once upon a time, I was the staff director of a Congressman’s office. He was a Republican. At that time, the Democrats held an overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. They also used that power in pushing through legislation to which the Republicans objected violently. Even when the Reagan Administration came to town, Republicans could do little to oppose the Democrats.

So the Republicans began to organize. They created initially small power bases, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee. Over time, other organizations soon followed, as did intensive grass-roots organizing in conservative areas nation-wide. Eventually, the Republicans gained and held a majority in the House and Senate, and just as the Democrats had once done, they began to abuse their power and to push through legislation violently opposed by the Democrats or to block legislation they opposed, even when polls showed that the majority of Americans supported such legislation.

Obviously, this is a pattern in American politics, but what concerns me is how, with each swing of the pendulum, the infighting and the partisanship become nastier and more violent; the attacks more personal; and the intransigence more entrenched.

The last time that political intensity in Congress may have been this intense occurred on May 22, 1856, over the issue of slavery when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate Chamber and physically attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts from behind with a metal-topped cane. Sumner was so badly injured that it took him years to recover. Certainly, the verbal intensity at present is higher, cruder, and more distorted than it has been in some time, and, combined with the political polarization of the two major parties, it doesn’t appear that there’s any sign of moderation on the horizon.

I’m old enough to have seen the swing of politics from one abusive majority to another abusive majority of a different party, but most Americans either haven’t lived long enough to see it, don’t care so long as “their” party prevails, or have no idea what I’m talking about.

History would suggest that this kind of situation, unless defused, will only get worse. The only question may be whether we’re looking at a repeat of 1968 or 1861.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from History?”

  1. Rural_Defender says:

    My fear is it’s closer to 1861 this time, but what is the solution? I used to think that having strong third parties and a parliamentary democracy was the solution, but in looking at the parliamentary democracies around the world, I see the same pattern (in different variations) re-occur. Is this the flaw that democracies have to endure? the pendulum of demagoguery? as often quoted “..Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms…”

  2. Tom says:

    I am sure you have noted the changes in behavior in the rest of the world and not just the USA. I am particularly astounded by Europeans reverting to the nationalism or so called populism which they know to have been their downfall 100 years ago. They do not have the isolationism excuse which the Americas experience.

    To me, this lapse into primitive behavior of society, seems to be because of loss of strength of character of the leaders of society’s building blocks: the family or group leaders. It has happened repetitively throughout the history of humanity. We seem to be unable to maintain quality in the face of quantity; character in the face of freedom.

    My father was a better ‘man’ than I am. Unfortunately there are but shadows of ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ who are our world leaders today. In Russia and China, Turkey and Iran they fought a few to top the heap. In the UK and USA, Australia and Canada we chose them freely. The ids outweigh the egos; or is that just our excuse for our relapse into jealousy and consequently me-ism?

    Our leaders are lawyers and professional politicians. Such as are doctors are slash and grab neurosurgeons rather than psychologists or, as Asimov wanted; neuropsychologists. Would these specialists make more stable and altruistic leaders?

  3. Daze says:

    Those who do not remember the past are condemned to basing their decisions on the aphorisms on greetings cards.

  4. Matthew Newman says:

    It could be 1861 but I think honestly that the division and infighting is represented by the margins on both sides and the political parties are catering to a minority. I fear it is more likely that the majority will reject our system of government and it will be revolution not civil war. The obvious concern here being the example of the Arab Spring where the opportunists who filled the vacuum have largely proven to be worse than those they replaced.

  5. Tom says:

    I came across a quote from George Washington our US first President that seems to me to have been prescient:

    The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to Party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself Despotism. But this leads to a more formal and permanent despotism.

    Makes me fear for the USA.

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