Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it, said either Mark Twain or, more likely, Hartford Courant editor Charles Dudley Warner, a close friend of Twain’s.
The same may be said of political polarization, frequently mentioned in stories in which former President Donald Trump is cast as the nation’s sole polarizer.
Here is a sentence drawn at random from a recent Courant opinion piece, “JFK’s ‘Best and Brightest’ revisited,” written by Scott Badler, a former Harvard and Emerson writing instructor: “The nation is polarized, and it is rare that someone from one party votes with the other party.”
“Polarized” is the perfect word to describe a left-right standoff on irreconcilable issues. Think of Alaska’s frozen tundra, of lungs scorched by below zero temperatures, of breathless politicians swooning into man-high snow drifts.
Bader supposes that the John F. Kennedy era was considerably more bipartisan and well-mannered than our own. JFK’s influencers were a less coarse, more agreeable lot. Then too, Kennedy surrounded himself with “the best and brightest – skilled, accomplished, intelligent and quick thinking. They were political intellectuals, corporate leaders and public officials… We need a new breed of the best and brightest to make politics welcoming again.”
The age of Lincoln was polarized. His cabinet was a rare assembly of the best and brightest of the day, some members having once been political opponents. Lincoln’s rhetoric as a leading representative of a new Republican Party, and later as President of a “House Divided” on the question of slavery, was effective, stunningly apposite, and on occasion politely humorous.
This is what Lincoln said at the close of the Illinois Republican State Convention in June 1858: “If we could first know where [emphasis Lincoln’s] we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed – ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
But the nation was divided, the union was dissolved. It did fall into warring factions and, in the end, following a bloody Civil War, it ceased to be divided. It became, with the military defeat of the slave power, all one thing. And the nation’s graveyards, north and south, still bare silent witness to a fatal division on points of profit and honor.
Today, Democrats, including President Joe Biden, incautiously call some Republicans -- and by extension all Republicans -- “fascists,” without quite understanding that the fascist state, historically, is the totalitarian command state against which Republicans have been inveighing since President Ronald Reagan warned, “Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.”
Today, the Republican Party that effectively ended the slave power in the Re-United States, is routinely cursed as “racist” by political alchemists. That garbage should instantly be deposited in garbage bins. Much of our postmodern feverish hyperbole is the inevitable consequence of bad manners, about which Bill Buckley warned, “The trouble with bad manners is that they sometimes lead to murder.”
The roots in the words “police”, “political “and “policy” are interconnected -- from the Greek polis, "city". And politeness is the gleaming polish of the civilized city – from the Latin civilis, "relating to a citizen, relating to public life, befitting a citizen, popular, affable, courteous (emphasis mine)."
Badler is right. In moving from John Kennedy to Joe Biden, we have become less civil, and therefore less civilized. To put it another way, the cultural barbarians have triumphed. Courtesy is no longer popular -- from the Latin popularis, "belonging to the people, general, common, devoted to or accepted by the people, democratic," from populus "people".
Here in Connecticut, majority Democrats need not struggle with polarization, which usually occurs when political power is more or less evenly distributed between political factions. There is very little polarization, Connecticut’s politicians may have noticed, in totalitarian countries such as Korea or China.
Because of their superior numbers in the General Assembly, it has been very easy for Democrats to marginalize Republicans through party leaders that strangle reasonable opposing ideas in their cribs. The Republican Party hardly exists in Connecticut’s hegemonic, crumbling Democrat cities. And this election season Governor Ned Lamont -- who for two years has exerted, with winks from the Democrat super-majority in the General Assembly, plenary powers that might have made the last colonial governor of Connecticut blush with shame -- has allowed only two debates between himself and Republican Party opponent Bob Stefanowski.
Lincoln and Douglas held seven debates, averaging about two hours in length, strategically located at equidistant points covering the whole of Illinois. And though newspapers of the day were little more than party organs, the Lincoln-Douglas media published accurate stenographic reports of the debates, not merely attenuated accounts of the confrontations spiced with polarizing reportorial biases.
Don Pesci is a political columnist of long standing, about 40 years, who has written for various state newspapers, among them The Journal Inquirer, the Waterbury Republican American, the New London Day, the Litchfield County Times, the Torrington Register Citizen and other Register Citizen papers. He maintains a blog, among the oldest of its kind in Connecticut, which serves as a repository and archive, for his columns; there are approximately 3,000 entrees in Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State, virtually all of them political columns stretching back to 2004. He also appears once a week Wednesdays on 1080 WTIC Newstalk radio with Will Marotti.