Note to readers: This week’s post on our ‘Discord and Dissension’ project ended up being too long for a single post, and so it will be presented in two parts. This is the first part, the second will follow this afternoon. It seems we have a lot to say, and this is likely to happen from time to time. 😉
As my good friend Jill over at Filosofa’s Word pointed out in her excellent intro to this project last Friday, Wake Up America! 2020 is here, and if you thought 2016 was bad, buckle up your seat belts. Campaign 2020 promises to be one of the most divisive in history. As we speak, the current president of the United States is about to go on trial in the Senate for two articles of impeachment.
And he’s not happy about it.
But beyond the current chaos in Washington, our political system is as dysfunctional as ever. The focus of our project is not just to diagnose the problem, but to offer up some solutions as to what we can do to change it for the better. Those at the top are doing just fine. How can we make sure all of the people benefit? Jill and I both know it’s not going to be easy. Let’s face it, change never is.
The stakes are high, however. Whether it’s climate change, gun control, or health care, why is it that the people never seem to get what they want? When did gridlock become the norm? When did the marriage of our two-party system begin its slow descent into irreconcilable differences?
To answer those critical questions, we must look at some of the significant defining moments over the last nearly six decades to get a better understanding. To treat or cure a problem, it helps if you know the history.
How did we get here?
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Initially proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, he was unable to get the legislation passed due to a filibuster in the Senate. However, Lyndon Johnson was able to push it through in 1964, only a few months after the tragic assassination of Kennedy.
The historic and sweeping anti-discrimination bill was bi-partisan, with several Republicans voting in favor. However, a significant change was about to occur. In those days, Southern Democrats, also called Dixiecrats, vehemently fought against the bill. President Johnson was well aware of the troubled waters ahead and famously predicted that the Democrats would “lose the South for generations.”
He was spot-on. The realignment occurred over several years, but what was once a stable block for the Democrats, became dominated by Republicans. The ideological and geographical transformation of that region still holds today, although demographic shifts are slowly beginning to change the area again.
We began to see the battle lines of the future, though. In due time, the Democratic Party began to identify more with people of color and the coasts, while the Republican Party became more aligned with rural America.
Watergate and Nixon’s resignation
The Watergate affair and subsequent investigation captivated Americans from 1972-1974. Once it was revealed that a taping system existed in the White House, President Richard Nixon was in big trouble. Until that point, he still had the support of the Republican Party. Eventually, that support fractured, and Nixon resigned in disgrace.
Regardless of Nixon’s conduct, many Republicans blamed the Democrats for overreacting to Nixon’s misdeeds. Some never forgave the Democrats for impeaching Nixon. They would get their revenge nearly 25 years later.
Buckley v. Valeo 1976
After Watergate, Congress embarked on a series of reforms aimed at regulating our campaign finance system. However, the Supreme Court changed everything in 1976 with its decision in the Buckley v. Valeo case. At its core, the decision asserted that congressional limits on campaign spending represented an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
The decision also eliminated spending limits on wealthy individuals who paid for their campaigns.
While the Court still left intact governments’ ability to require spending limits of presidential candidates who accepted federal funds, the floodgates were now officially opened. It would pave the way for even more radical Supreme Court campaign finance decisions–thirty-plus years in the future.
Newt Gingrich and Clinton’s Impeachment
Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 and had a rough first two years. The result was the Republicans gaining control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in decades. New Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich took over and ushered in a new era of incivility in politics.
Gingrich’s combative and confrontational style resulted in two partial government shutdowns, for which he and his party were subsequently blamed. Clinton handily won reelection in 1996, but Republicans finally got their chance to even the score from the Nixon years. They impeached Clinton in 1998 for lying about a consensual affair with a White House intern.
The impeachment was widely considered partisan by the public, and Clinton left office with high approval ratings. But the partisan vitriol was only getting worse.
When he was a media consultant to Richard Nixon, Roger Ailes talked of wanting to start a conservative television network. In his mind, Nixon wouldn’t have resigned if there had been an alternative right-wing outlet willing to defend him. He got his wish in 1996 when he and media mogul Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News.
We see the fruit of Ailes, and his prognostication in real-time as President Trump benefits from favorable treatment by the network as his impeachment trial in the Senate is imminent. While Clinton ultimately survived his impeachment trial, Fox News, even though in its infancy, began it’s a slow ascent to the top of cable news ratings.
As the nineties drew to a close, it was clear that our politics would never be the same. A President was impeached and acquitted; we saw the rise and fall of a combative Speaker of the House; and, a conservative television network began it’s partisan rise to the top. Soon, the nation would experience an election like no other.
Much as it did with the Buckley decision in 1976, the Supreme Court was about to assert itself into the political process. The whole fabric of our democracy was at stake.
To be continued …