The tyranny of political self-interest

These are particularly perilous times in the country.

That’s unusual since we are not at war—technically. Yes, the Middle East is at a boil and Ukraine is fighting for its life, but we do not have American men and women on the front lines of those wars.

The economy is chugging along. Naturally, one’s view of the economy depends on their own circumstances, and economists keep warning of a recession, but overall, the economy is doing better than expected so far this year.

The pandemic is behind us and Covid, while still a health threat, is now more of a seasonal annoyance that can be largely mitigated with a vaccine.

Some futurists gravely predict that because of artificial intelligence, we will all be working for robots soon, but more rational voices see AI as the next big thing that will improve our lives.

Yet there is this angst, this palpable feeling that our country is just hanging by a thread, and it is because of our politics. Research by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia quantifies that.

Seventy percent of Joe Biden voters and 68 percent of Donald Trump voters say that electing officials from the other party in 2024 “would result in lasting harm to the United States.” About half of all Biden and Trump voters say the other party is “a threat to the American way of life.”

That’s terrifying. It suggests the divide isn’t just a difference of opinion, it is a deeply held belief that the very existence of the country depends on your side winning. That means going to extremes to ensure that the other side loses.

For example, the poll determined that 21 percent of Biden voters and 31 percent of Trump voters believe “The ends justify the means, and any action taken by my preferred political party is acceptable if it achieves our goals.”

What would that look like, exactly? According to the survey, 30 percent of Biden voters and 41 percent of Trump voters agree that “The situation in America is such that I would favor (blue/red) states seceding from the union to form their own separate country.”

What? I thought that was settled 160 years ago at a cost of  700,000 lives and the assassination of one of the country’s greatest presidents.

In addition, 31 percent of Trump voters and 24 percent of Biden voters agree with the statement that “Democracy is no longer a viable system, and America should explore alternative forms of government to assure stability and progress.”

I strongly disagree with that thought, but frankly, can you blame them? The extreme political tribalism and Washington dysfunction does not exactly instill confidence in how we govern ourselves.

These views and others suggest a certain fragility of our republic. Perhaps our longevity, instead of strengthening our political system, has made it infirm and lazy. The tyranny of political self-interest has eroded the foundational principles of our democratic republic.

The threat to the “American way of life” is not “the other side;” it is every side that does not prioritize the importance of holding the country together.

In November 1860, only days after he was elected and just seven months before the start of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln said, “Let us neither express nor cherish any hard feelings toward any citizen who by his vote has differed with us. Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.”

Half of the country did not listen then. Will we listen now?

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