Some of the common political questions these days are, why are our politics so polarized and why can’t we get back to a time in our history when the debate was more civil, and compromise was not a dirty word?
Political commentator and Morgantown, West Virginia native Michael Tomasky tackles those questions and more in his new book: If We Can Keep it. How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might be Saved. (Liveright Publishing Corporation)
Tomasky begins by challenging the idea that polarization is a new phenomenon. “And most of the time, in fact through almost all of our history as a nation, we’ve had two dominant parties. They have fought against each other. But—and this is the crucial part—they have also fought among themselves.”
He argues that parties had bitter internal arguments for most of our history because they were an amalgam of different people and ideas. Only in recent history did the parties become more ideologically homogeneous, and that fueled the ongoing existential battle between Republicans and Democrats that we see today.
The consensus that some of us long for today was not as common as we might think. One notable exception to political discord was last century.
Tomasky says the Great Depression and WWII caused a sustained period of national unity. Shared sacrifice and suffering during the thirties and forties forged an era of political consensus that lasted from 1945 until the 1980s.
He writes that the politicians of that period understood hardship. They lived through the Depression and many were veterans who had survived the war. As Tomasky explains, “Once men have been through experiences like that, politics doesn’t seem much like combat.”
Tomasky does not gloss over the major issues of the post-WWII era—civil rights, Vietnam—but the politicians of the day were not afraid to seek consensus.
Tomasky is liberal, and it’s only in the last part of the book that his leftward view comes strongly into play. He puts more responsibility on Republicans than Democrats for the increased polarization of today and blames the repeal of broadcasting’s Fairness Doctrine for allowing conservative talk radio to flourish.
Perhaps the most provocative chapter—More Consumers Than Citizens—adopts a lecturing tone of how Americans have become more concerned about products than politics. His theory is that the country has become obsessed with having what economist Fred Hirsch called “positional goods.”
“That is to say, their value is derived not necessarily from their inherent qualities, but how they compare—how they are positioned—to competitor goods, and how that comparison makes us feel about ourselves.”
Tomasky tries to end on an upbeat note with 14 proposed fixes to our political system. I won’t list them all here, but they include an end to partisan gerrymandering so that congressional districts are less hyperpartisan, expanding the House of Representatives (Yikes!) to put members of congress closer to a smaller number of people, eliminating the Electoral College and electing presidents by popular vote, reducing college to three years and making the 4th a year of service, and vastly expanding civics education.
The book comes at what feels like a critical moment in our country. It is a reminder that political polarization is as old as the nation itself, but also that the current differences between the two parties are more substantial, making consensus difficult, if not impossible.
Yes, Tomasky includes potential remedies but, overall, If We can Keep It leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling about the future of the republic.