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Tom Alderman

Tom Alderman

Posted: March 3, 2010 03:50 PM

The Tyranny of the Polarized: There's No More Us in the U.S.

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If you're one of the growing number of alarmed folks who fear our government is hopelessly polarized, dysfunctional, ungovernable and ripe for something other than representative democracy -- then you should stop reading this now because, well, you might get depressed.

The recent Blair House Healthcare summit reminded us that bipartisanship is an elusive mythical fantasy like Brigadoon. So, how bad is it?

"It's pretty dire," says Allen Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, "Not since the Civil War has our country been so deeply divided," Guelzo tells HuffPost. Only, our political affliction today is much WORSE than it was in Lincoln's time, he quickly adds. Back then, our polarization was clearly defined geographically and economically between North and South. Today, the political infection has metastasized throughout the entire body politic and this time it's cultural, not economically, based. <"The cultural polarity of politics has grown so far apart today," Guelzo continues, "you almost wonder if you're living in the same country. People in Kansas really wonder if people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area really belong to the same polity."

Prolific Lincoln author -- including the recent Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America -- Guelzo has written The American Mind, an Intellectual and Philosophical History of the U.S. It's an ultra-extensive, thirty-six lecture course he delivers with abundant vitality for The Teaching Company. The bottom line about today's deadlock is this: THERE IS NO US IN THE U.S. ANYMORE! "Democracy is a process," he explains. "It can only work if there's an underlying basic consensus. If you really believe that abortion is a woman's right to chose, or you truly believe that abortion is the murder of a human life, you're stuck in either win or lose. There simply is no common ground to stand on anymore. Unfortunately, there is a real threat that we are ripe for some charismatic figure to come along and lead us out of this chaos."

Okay, so it is bad -- maybe. We asked Guelzo: as horrific as it sounds, what about some cataclysmic event that brings us together like, you know, a war? "Remember Viet Nam? How'd that turn out?" he says.

What about the tragedy of 911 -- that brought us together in a big way. But, come to think of it, the whole flags-on-cars, kumbayah thing lasted about as long as the flavor in chewing-gum.

Not surprisingly, Prof. Guelzo brings Abe Lincoln to the table when he talks about today's political checkmate. The essence of democracy boils down to this, says Lincoln via Guelzo. "A majority wins because it has the majority votes. But it agrees not to stand the members of the minority up against a wall and shoot them. Whereas, the minority agrees that they did not get the votes and they will go along with the majority rule. But when those two are so far apart that they're not willing to abide by the principal -- THEN YOU'VE STARTED TO WRITE THE DEATH CERTIFICATE OF DEMOCRACY." Notice there's nothing in here about sixty-vote filibuster overrides.

In other words, whether you're a Tea Partier, civil libber, or anything in-between, the role of government is not the issue. Our real problem is us, or lack of us -- the tyranny of the polarized.

You depressed yet?