Ben-Meir: Partisanship gone awry

Exactly one year ago, although it feels like much longer, America elected Barack Obama as its 44th president. Since then, the national mood has changed in serious ways.

At the time of his election, Obama was seen as a movement leader, sweeping into the White House with a huge electoral majority and what seemed to be a mandate for change. Although his first few months in office were not without controversy, they did little to contradict this image: Obama averted the impending second Great Depression that many were predicting, ended the “Mexico City Gag Rule” and the ban on federal funding of stem-cell research, began the long processes of ending the war in Iraq and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and successfully nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, all while maintaining approval ratings in the low 60s and high 50s.

But as the debate about health care reform came took center-stage this summer, Obama’s ratings slid, Glenn Beck became a national political force and the “Tea Party” protestors gained new legitimacy as part of the political conversation. While Obama’s standing has stabilized since the summer, he has lost, at least for the moment, much of the symbolic force bound up with his election.

It appears that everyone has a different complaint. Progressives are disappointed by Obama’s incrementalism and seeming lack of willingness to fight for his key proposals; in their eyes, their champion has dismounted and wobbled tentatively forward, burdened down by the realities of Washington which he seemed to race past during the campaign. Conservatives are at best condescending towards, and at worst infuriated by, a president they see alternatively as laughably incompetent and supremely dangerous. Unemployment continues to rise, the war in Afghanistan poses an increasingly complex set of issues and depending on who you ask, real change has either come all too slow, or much too quickly.

But the ground-level politics miss the bigger picture of the Obama presidency so far, and risk glossing over a fundamental question posed by the actions of elected and unelected opponents of the Obama administration: What do you do when you lose an election in America?

From the moment that the House Republican caucus voted unanimously against the stimulus package, it was clear that opposition to Obama would take unprecedented forms. This has proven true both in the halls of Congress and in the streets of America. In Congress, the Republican party’s ranks have been significantly diminished, leaving only the party’s hyper-conservative core. It has become a given that 60 votes are required to pass anything through the Senate; what is often not mentioned is that this is because Senate Republicans attempt to filibuster every major piece of legislation, contradicting their frequent (and far more frequently successful) advocacy for “up-and-down votes” when they were in power. Moreover, there appear to be only three or four Republican senators even willing to choose negotiation over reflexive obstruction; one, Arlen Specter, was forced to change parties after it became clear that the conservative Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania would not allow his renomination as a consequence.

While official partisanship has taken an extreme form, it is not new to Washington. What is new, and more troubling, is the extremity of citizen reactions to Obama. While some Democrats complained bitterly about George W. Bush’s illegitimacy, a far larger and more vocal group of conservatives have taken to the streets, protesting an image of Obama that has little basis in reality. The “Teabaggers” have adopted the rhetoric of revolution, and challenge the fundamental democratic principle that America decides its course through elections — that the losing side is bound by the virtue of its citizenship and participation in the process to go along with the decision of the majority, at least until it comes time to vote again. While I did not support President Bush at the ballot box or the kitchen table, he was my president all the same. The teabaggers, birthers, deathers and others do not seem to feel the same way about Obama. In the most extreme acts of protest, several people have been seen with exposed firearms outside of presidential events. The Secret Service says it is literally being overwhelmed by the number of death threats against the president.

It is not the Republican Party’s fault that this fringe has become its public face. They are loud and sensationalist, and the media loves conflict. Moreover, with the recent unpopularity of Republican ideas, the party must take votes where it can get them.

But playing to this portion of the base is dangerous. Last weekend, we saw the Republican candidate effectively driven out of the race in New York’s 23rd congressional district by an insurgent third party campaign, leading to Rush Limbaugh’s comment (not repudiated by the Conservative Party candidate) that the socially liberal Republican nominee was “guilty of bestiality. She has screwed every RINO (Republican in name only) in the country.”

In the wake of this purge, we should all ask: In a country unlikely to abandon the two-party system, what good does partisan purity serve? At what cost to representative government will we demand ideological uniformity among the leaders of an ideologically diverse nation?

While Obama seemed at first to be the harbinger of a new American civility, if not unity, in the wake of the Bush years, we the people have allowed a promising symbol of national reconciliation to be battered and tarnished. The rhetoric of a campaign cannot be enacted in governance, but the sensibility can; yet it is hard to remember the sense of hope that once surrounded Barack Obama.

Last year’s election was historic, but it now falls to us to decide what it meant. Will the Obama presidency be remembered as an important chapter in America’s pendular history of progressive change and conservative restoration, or will it be remembered as the moment that the terms of our democratic experiment were changed? Can the government continue to function as it was framed? Is the American citizenry still able to shoulder the responsibilities of democratic choice, and the pain of losses democratically decided?

One year into the Obama presidency, we need to realize the seriousness of this moment. Health care reform is crucial, but it is not fundamental to our American identity. Climate change is a looming disaster, but the debate surrounding it is not rooted in our historical tradition. The hysteria that has threatened to derail Obama, however, cannot be ignored. Last year, the American people elected Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Those who can’t seem to stomach his Presidency only have to wait three more years to vote for their own little bit of hope and change.

Ilan Ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

Comments

  • Pay to Say in Chicago

    Obama – a person of civility? Obama’s administration has the most politicized Dept of Justice, has a “in your face” attitude to Republicans (or Democats) who disagree with his Holiness, apologizes to world tyrants like Putin, Chavez, Castro, and Ahmadinejad, insults our allies like England, France, and Israel, fails to provide crucial support to the Iranian resistance movement, acts to prop up a dictator-in-training in Honduras, rewards its big donors with ambassadorships, tries to politicize the National Endowment for the Humanities, draws up an enemies’ list that would make Nixon blush, coordinates activities with crooked organizations like ACORN, is a political friend to hateful extremists like Bill Ayers or Rev Wright, spends more time playing golf in 6 months than his predecessor in 36 months while the economy goes down the toilet, Iran is making nuclear bombs, and war against terrorism is turning from victory to defeat in Afghanistan… need i say more… oh, and he’s the narcissist in chief.

  • The Yale GOP Minority

    The author severely mis-characterizes our nation’s political climate. It is not the Republicans that have become radicalized, but the Democrats. We have always been, and remain, a nation with a plurality of conservatives. And, as the election results yesterday demonstrate, both our Independents and Republicans are sick of the outrageous government spending which both President Bush and President Obama have made the norm in America.

    The results in Maine, which has gone blue since 1988, should serve as a reminder to Yale Democrats that the majority of their party are not the “latte-sipping” pro-Europe liberals they are, but are Americans with old fashioned values, and have many conservatives among their ranks.

    For the first time, the Democratic Party has become overrun with the “latte-sipping,” as opposed to the blue-collar, crowd of Democrats–indeed, the choice of Biden as VP reflects an attempt to appease this second class of Democrats.

    If the Democrats want to enact European-style social reforms, they’re going to have to ram them through Congress, because moderates and conservatives have consistently polled strong opposition to health-care reform and the like, and their representatives are following these opinions.

    If, on the other hand, the Democrats want to enact popular reforms, it is them who will have to move to the center.

  • Pierson90

    “[C]ritics are right to worry about the expense of the package. The federal government is running a $1.4 trillion deficit this year, and Obama’s current budget plan calls for an approximate doubling of the national debt by the end of the decade. In the long run, this increase in the national debt will hurt GDP growth, as the Democrats’ own Congressional Budget Office has warned.” — Revisiting the Stimulus Package, Wagener, Trevor, Yale Daily News, 11/04/2009

  • Y11

    This entire piece is rooted to the assumption that everyone should agree with what Obama is doing, that his policies are objectively wonderful, and that any kind of dissent is simply disruptive, petty and unfounded. It seems that the possibility someone, or even many people, might genuinely not agree with Obama and other Democrats has not occurred to the author. If it has, then he’s advocating we all make nice, simply because partisanship is bad, rather than standing up for what we believe in. Startling ignorance from a Yale student.

  • heartsurgeon

    let’s play a game:
    who said this?

    “Right now it’s not our job to give out specifics. We have no control in the House. We have no control in the Senate. It’s our job is to stop this administration, this corrupt and incompetent administration, from doing more damage to America.”

    well, it was Democrat Party Chairman Howard Dean on Meet the Press, discussing the Bush Administration…..

  • yalemom

    The honeymoon is coming to an end ….finally!!!

  • Y’11

    In NY 23, the democratic candidate was liberal and the republican candidate was even more liberal in some ways. God forbid the conservatives aren’t blindly partisan and voted for a 3rd party candidate whom they actually agreed with. For someone who claims partisanship has gone awry, you’re sure quick to dismiss people who doesn’t want for conform to the 2-party system.

    For future reference, “teabaggers” is just as offensive of a term as calling gay-rights activists “faggers”. People respect arguments that do not resort to name-calling. Just because every other media outlet relishes in using that name, it doesn’t make it any more professional.

  • Yalie

    This piece written last week by Mr.Scrudato pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with Mr.Ben-Meir’s arguments.

    http://www.yaledailynews.com/opinion/staff-columns/2009/10/29/scrudato-independent-leader/

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • MC11

    Stop wasting your breath. You can’t reason with an idiot.

  • K

    A great piece!

  • Alum

    The “debate” about climate change is not part of any country’s “historical tradition” because it’s not a “historical problem”. And, if making sure poor people can go to the doctor isn’t fundamental to the “American identity”, I’m glad I’m not an American.

  • Jordon Walker

    This fundamental basis for this piece was absolutely stupid. The demonizing of individuals who wish to practice their constitutional rights in criticizing a president is not partisanship gone awry, but the American freedoms in action. To characterize conservatives as a “crazy fringe” because they vehemently oppose policies that make us less safe and jeopardize the long term economic security of our country is nonsensical. This piece presented a naive and extraordinarily biased view of the political process. I also wonder if the author was so “disconcerted” when people were vehemently protesting Bush era policies left and right, my prediction would be that he saw nothing wrong in those instances but now that Obama is challenged the prescription must be partisanship gone awry. Give me a break, this piece seems more like journalism gone stupid.