Senator John McCain was a remarkable maverick, often crossing the floor in order to stand up for his beliefs. He helped pass innumerable pieces of bipartisan legislation throughout his career. He leaves behind a legacy of reconciliation, a stellar model for rising above party lines and combatting conformity and obstructionism.
This extension of political relations, sadly, has not been a regular sight in our political processes recently. The onslaught of political polarization has curbed bipartisan efforts and detracted from the purpose of the US government, which is to promote the general welfare of the American people and encourage growth in all facets of life.
There is a vicious cycle today between the dearth of civil discourse and America’s increasing political polarization. Rational discussions regarding key issues that should be crossing party lines have degenerated into heated arguments on Twitter over the minutiae with both sides charged. Although the discussion itself does not show political segregation, the retweet system does segregate users into homogenous communities corresponding to the political left and right, according to the 2011 AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.
In general, people are cherry-picking and filtering information across mass media before it gets to them. A project from the Pew Research Center showed that those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right have “information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views – and very distinct from each other.”
Furthermore, democracy suffers when individuals are exposed only to persons or facts that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, Cass R. Sunstein said in “The Law of Group Polarization.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s Ideological Consistency Scale, 92% of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat (up from 64% in 1994 and 70% in 2004) and 94% of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican (up from 70% in 1994 and 68% in 2004).
It doesn’t help that political campaigns are starting earlier than ever in order to amass capital, intimidate opponents and secure endorsements, which eliminates the transition period that helps elected officials decompress— so that incumbents may be compromising rather than unwavering, so they may focus on governing instead of campaigning.
Furthermore, there is no more collegiality for politicians; these elected officials rarely move their families to the capitals anymore, for their respective districts and states would condemn their detachment from their home communities and thus threaten the future of their political careers.
Because of this, as the Honorable Joseph J. Heck shares in his 2018 keynote address, politicians do not form adequate relationships across party lines or respect each other as leaders who put the nation first. This in turn reduces the likeliness and effectiveness of having a cool, collected discussion over policy in an effort to reconcile political differences and prioritize the nation’s welfare.
The economic disparity between social classes also disenfranchises certain groups, preventing a healthy level of political participation and exacerbating political polarization. In order to bridge the gap and restore civility nationwide, politicians and citizens alike need to adopt presumption of good faith, the “axiomatic cornerstone of both civil and criminal law,” according to Andrew Cohen, “The myth of good faith in our legal system.”
Many legislators refuse to collaborate with each other because of possible biases or ulterior motives. They consider party allegiance a very definitive marker of ideology and therefore a strong predictor of conflict, a negative manifestation of this political polarization.
By adopting presumption of good faith based on the greater good, politicians will approach conflict or disagreement differently — they will be patient and reasonable and understanding, able to provide rational and well-thought-out arguments to qualify a proposition or address concerns. This mode of thinking will allow structural changes currently unfixable; right now those who are protected by the status quo are the ones who have to change it.
The unity and tolerance embodied in politicians would then help form a common national identity that would counteract polarization, restoring civil discourse and therefore learning within and across each community, with everyone accepting each other for their differences and independent thinking, then looking beyond those differences to promote diversity and the holistic welfare of America.
Only then would this nation be able to successfully enact widespread reform with the largest utilitarian benefit, maybe even implementing ranked-choice voting, popularizing split-ticket voting or bringing up mandatory retirement for elected officials (but that’s for another time).
To appeal to the nation’s tolerance and care for each other is to understate the purpose of reducing political polarization. Encouraging bipartisanship and merging different communities cultivate diversity and make America hospitable for not just US nationals but for citizens of the world too. This, as a result, expands America’s influence and role in the world.
It is therefore imperative that all Americans follow in Senator John McCain’s footsteps and honor his legacy of bipartisanship, of accepting people of all parties without reservations and prioritizing the nation’s welfare above party politics.