What happens when worldviews collide? There may be no better example than the controversy that passes for legislation in the nation’s capital today. The two-party system of government is adversarial by nature, providing a vehicle for voters with differing opinions and beliefs to take sides with the political party that best represents their interests. But in recent years the philosophical divide has grown deeper and more entrenched, and despite frequent calls for bipartisanship from beleaguered voters, that’s the last thing most voters actually want.
Today’s Republican and Democratic parties represent such highly polarized points of view about almost everything that there is little hope of finding common ground, which means that enacting legislation—or confirming Supreme Court nominees—agreeable to both sides is next to impossible. This is obviously the case in the budget battles and threats of government shutdown that occur now with predictable regularity. Disagreements over issues such as immigration, abortion, gun control, taxes, health care, entitlements, the environment and much more have pushed the parties further and further apart and created deep-seated hostility in Congress and in communities all over America. In my own extended family, some relatives refuse to speak to other family members who support President Donald Trump. You’ve likely experienced the same thing in your family.
Democrats and Republicans often disagree with each other simply because they refuse to agree with the other side on anything. For perspective, it may be helpful to remember that the Left-Right divide didn’t start here. The terms Left and Right, and the institutional divide between parties, actually date back to the French Revolution of 1789, when members of the anti-royalist faction, including the Jacobins, in the French Assemblée Nationale moved to the left side of the chamber to express disdain for the loyalist defenders of the king, who were seated on the right.
The Jacobins were free thinkers and political radicals. Along with other rebel factions, they rejected traditional values, especially the Catholic Church, and led the campaign to eradicate wealthy aristocrats, the clergy and the French nobility. The violent eruption that took place on July 14, 1789, known as Bastille Day, led in due course to what became known as “The Reign of Terror,” in which as many as 40,000 loyalists, business owners, nobles and clergy were executed between 1793 and 1794.
The French Revolution provides a timely warning about the consequences of extreme polarization. Disputes among government officials have led to bitter feuds in the past—the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton being one notable example—however, most debates today stop well short of physical violence. But nightly news reports make it clear that the standards of civil discourse are breaking down, and debates between the Left and Right are no longer merely academic.
I remember this type of anarchy being espoused during the Vietnam War era, and I saw some of the protests at the University of Florida become violent. I believe the roots of the current problems started back then. But today it is much worse.
The only conclusion one can draw, radio host Dennis Prager suggests, is that America’s “mayors, police chiefs and college presidents have no interest in stopping this violence.” Left-wing officials tend to sympathize with the lawbreakers. And while local police may have little sympathy for the thugs and generally try to avoid the ideology of both the Left and Right, they’ve been ordered to stand down in volatile situations. They’ve been effectively emasculated by corrupt local officials.
I saw firsthand how anarchists tried to stir up racial tensions after the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012 in Sanford, Florida, only a few miles from where I live. When it first happened, it seemed to be just one more tragic death from a handgun. The local black community didn’t really know Trayvon because he was visiting from Miami. Initially they were not enraged. Then out-of-town leftist agitators showed up saying Trayvon was killed by a racist white man named George Zimmerman and that the police had let him go. After a difficult trial watched by the nation, it was deemed that Zimmerman (who was actually Hispanic despite his last name) was acting in self-defense, and that law enforcement let him go because Florida law allows for use of force in self-defense.
Before the verdict, radicals predicted that Sanford would be burned to the ground if Zimmerman were not convicted. The situation was even inflamed by comments made by President Barack Obama. I was personally involved during that period with other local Christian leaders who worked to ease racial tensions. When Zimmerman was acquitted in July 2013, there were demonstrations and small riots in other parts of the country, but thanks to prayer, there was no violence in Sanford.
After the media feeding frenzy over Trayvon Martin’s death, the stage was set for higher than normal outrage and coverage a year later when a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, shot a young black man who was attacking him. And of course, things escalated with other incidents in Baltimore, Maryland, and other places. By the time Trump was elected, these anarchists and their patrons in the media were poised for more civil unrest when the election didn’t go their way. Liberals in government and the media claim Donald Trump’s election created the breakdown in civil discourse.
As in the French Revolution more than two centuries ago, the political Left in this country is less inclined to respond to political and philosophical disagreement through discourse and debate. Especially for millennials and younger liberals, mass protests, demonstrations, boycotts and violent rhetoric from outspoken leaders is the preferred mode of response.
The burning of a large Donald Trump figure in Los Angeles on the night after the election, followed months later by comedienne Kathy Griffin holding a replica of Trump’s bloody severed head, as well as relentless verbal attacks along the way from Democratic politicians Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi, have energized the base and indicated the level of anger boiling over on the Left. Late-night comics from Bill Maher and Jimmy Kimmel to Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee have focused virtually their entire repertoire on character assassination of the president.
But there is a pattern of division on the conservative side as well. Former New York Republican Rep. Chris Shays says that during his 22 years in Congress, he often crossed the aisle to work with Democrats. “When I was first elected to Congress, you would have been thrown out … if you couldn’t work with the other side,” he said. But many members of Congress today have “never known a Congress where Democrats and Republicans worked together for the good of the country.”
Is it because leaders on both sides are attempting to rid the party of moderates? Many conservatives believe compromise with the Left is the cause of many of their social and legislative failures, and the election of Donald Trump was meant to be a significant part of the remedy.
But the result is that both parties are being pushed to the extremes. And, therefore, so are the American people.