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America divided

Christie Pesavento | Tuesday, April 20, 2010

“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

I remember the first time I heard these words, as I’m sure many of you do, during the election of 2004 when then-Senator Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Shocking though it may be, even I have to admit that Obama was right. Politics in this country have become incredibly polarized, thanks in large measure to politicians who capitalize on dividing our population along various social lines, such as liberal and conservative, black and white, rich and poor; and pitting these groups against one another in order to gain votes. Ironically, Obama’s stinging rebuke of such tactics was given in the context of supporting the vice presidential candidacy of John Edwards, who built his presidential campaign on the idea of two Americas — the haves and the have-nots — in hopes of galvanizing the lower classes in support of his election.

Of course politicians would not employ this tactic so often if it proved unsuccessful. As those familiar with sociological theory know, the existence of a common enemy provides a powerful unifying force among members within a given group by heightening their loyalty to the group and magnifying the characteristics of that group in contrast to the enemy. Politicians play on existing social boundaries within the population in order to drum up support for or opposition to public policies. Take, for instance, the recent battle over healthcare reform. Those who favored the legislation characterized detractors as greedy rich people who were unsympathetic toward the plight of the poor and middle class (economic divisions), while those who opposed the bill accused the other side of trying to turn America into a socialist nation (ideological divisions). By establishing this sort of “us versus them” mentality and demonizing the opposing group, politicians frequently achieve results, and thus have little incentive to abandon the strategy.

The Founders had a keen awareness of the dangers that could result when various interests align against one another in “factions,” and established our republic grounded in federalism largely to control their damaging effects. Aside from a single outbreak of violence during the mid-nineteenth century, Americans have enjoyed a sustained period of relative peace, and the system the Founders originally designed remains intact. As Madison predicted, our institutions have for the most part served to “refine and enlarge” the selfish views of factions, which draw upon mutual animosities to vie for power and state deference toward their own interests to the detriment of other interests or of the common good.

But today, our nation faces a factional crisis that is compounded by economic woes, a crushing deficit and an increasing number of entrenched entitlement programs that redistribute government funds to specific groups instead of using them for the benefit of the general public. Scottish historian Alexander Tytler foresaw the advent of this crisis over two hundred years ago when he warned, “A democracy … can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.” I fear that the sort of entitlement mentality that Tytler described, the same mentality that Franklin Roosevelt institutionalized through the New Deal, that Lyndon Johnson built upon with the Great Society, and that President Obama and his liberal allies in Congress are now feverishly seeking to expand, is pushing us down a path toward fiscal ruin. When the public’s greatest concern becomes “what’s in it for me?” rather than “what is good for the country?” and politicians are forced to give into these demands or risk political suicide, who is left to look out for the nation as a whole?

To avoid the fate Tytler predicted, Americans need to change how they assess public policy, with an eye toward what is best for the long-term prosperity of our country rather than simply what will bring the most short-term benefit to oneself. There will always be differences and disagreements that divide our population, and politicians will always use them to their advantage. Entitlement debates play upon the division between the rich and the poor and are especially contentious, as reflected by Madison’s assertion that property tends to be the most common and durable source of faction, and thus the most dangerous to the survival of the nation. The early twentieth century marked the dawn of the voters’ discovery that they could vote to redistribute public funds to certain groups. If we are to maintain our preeminent standing in the world for the foreseeable future, we cannot allow the temptation of government handouts to outweigh the need for sound fiscal policy and a concern for the public good.

Christie would like to thank everyone who has read or responded to her column these past two years, and wishes her classmates in the Class of 2010 the best of luck in their future endeavors. She can be reached at cpesaven@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.