By the time you read this, the 2020 election will be nearly over. Some votes may be still uncounted, the outcome still unclear, the lawyers just getting warmed up, and some races – including in Georgia – set for a runoff. But in the main, it’ll finally be over.
It’s become cliché to bemoan our polarized politics. The truth is, it’s always been polarized. If you don’t believe me, go watch the rap-battle scenes from the musical “Hamilton.” Or better yet, read the history of how that era’s sharp divisions over slavery, debt and foreign policy led to poisoned and shattered friendships, among men who’d spent years fighting alongside one another for the sake of liberty.
What is different now – or, worse, what’s the same – is the way our divisions are driving us toward a point of no return.
For the first time in my life, I hear level-headed people talking about the possibility of revolution, civil war, secession. As in: “If Trump wins, and Antifa takes to the streets ….” Or: “If Biden wins and Texas secedes ….”
Now, I don’t think either of those will happen. But we didn’t get even to this point because the two main political parties are too different from one another, although they’re more divided on policy now than they’ve been in some time. We got here because too many people think their political opposites are not just wrong, but evil. We got here because too many people think the other side is ready to shred the constitutional fabric of our nation.
We also got here because the “permanent campaign” has come to mean not just the way presidents govern as if they’re still in election mode, but the way their opponents don’t actually accept defeat.
Here, I don’t mean refusing to concede the election or working to delegitimize the winner, although we have seen plenty of both in recent years, in Georgia and nationally. Rather, I’m talking about opponents actively working to defeat the winner even after the election ended.
If it seems like four years between elections isn’t a long enough break, that’s because we don’t actually take a break. We don’t give the winner a chance to govern, and ourselves a chance to reappraise him on that basis. We don’t require the losing party to re-evaluate its approach, which is why we seem to keep getting the same thing from each party after it loses, just on steroids.
Consider how obvious it was after 2016 that, as soon as they had a chance, congressional Democrats would impeach President Donald Trump for something. They, and we, didn’t know exactly what. It was just plain that they would. That’s because the idea of defeating Trump did not end with his defeat of Hillary Clinton; it merely moved to a different venue.
Here, Democrats will point out that the GOP impeached Bill Clinton in 1998, also after years of seeking a reason to do so. Fair enough, although there are important differences between the two instances. Actually, the differences between the Clinton and Trump examples reflect an important point: The party out of the White House has constantly ratcheted up the rhetoric and action against the president, higher and higher with each new officeholder.
Part of me imagines things will get better once the baby boomers shuffle off the stage after 28 years (and counting) in the White House. Another part of me worries the younger generations have already absorbed everything wrong with the politics of those three decades.
Maybe we younger Americans can set things right once it’s our turn. (Admitting my bias upfront, I tend to think only a member of Generation X can do it, because we’re the only ones who can talk to the boomers and the millennials in their own terms.)
But it’s going to take more than a younger face. It’s going to take a rejection of our current nonstop politics. That ought not to be too hard, considering how many people spend each election, and the permanent campaign in between, saying how much they hate it.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.