Friday, November 13, 2020

Musings on Irreconcilable Differences in American Politics

      By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The 2020 election confirmed that the partisan hostility and hate in American politics has not diminished.  In marriage a divorce can resolve such irreconcilable differences, but not in politics.  A politics of reconciliation requires minimizing partisan hostility in Congress, and one way to do that is to shift the center of gravity in American politics from Washington to the states.

The Constitution supports a devolution of legislative power to the states.  The Tenth Amendment affirms that the states retain all powers not delegated to the United States.  Partisan politics at the state level are less divisive than those in Congress.  They are more bottom-up than top-down, and limit a concentration of political power in Washington.

Having elected a president, Democrats are heady about pushing their liberal agenda, but they’re not likely to pass much of it with a new Congress that’s split between conservatives and liberals.  Most state legislatures are more moderate than Congress and can continue to make progress on major issues, while Congress remains gridlocked in partisan debate.  

To restore a functioning Congress the states must assume more responsibility for contentious legislation on education, law enforcement, housing, health care and abortion.  That would leave Congress with fewer partisan national issues, like those related to foreign policy, national defense, immigration, interstate commerce and Social Security.

Restoring an emphasis on law-making at the state level is not a partisan issue and is consistent with bringing governance closer to the people.  Federalism was a political priority in the 1970s and 1980s with revenue sharing.  The new Congress should emphasize a new federalism to counter partisan polarization and promote a politics of reconciliation.

Those in Congress committed to follow their national party leaders will likely resist sharing control of important legislation with states, where national partisan control is minimal.  Partisan polarization has debilitated Congress, making it an existential issue in American democracy; and a new federalism could revive the long lost spirit of compromise in Congress.

A new federalism emphasizing state legislation on domestic issues that defy resolution in Congress, like those on gun control and abortion, would not divest Congress of its legislative power.  It would provide more options for legislative priorities, and remind Americans that their  democracy is a federal system with power shared by the states and the national government. 

Donald Trump will be evicted from the White House in January, but partisan polarization will continue to unravel the fabric of America’s democracy unless it’s countered by a politics of reconciliation.  That will require a new federalism that enables state governments to fulfill the legislative priorities of a dysfunctional Congress that’s paralyzed by partisan polarization.


Michael Luo has observed that the work of saving democracy must go on after Trump. “In the end, bigotry, mendacity, and narcissism lost. Decency and reason won. Despite Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the election results, after four chaotic years, the country will escape the ordeal of his Presidency. Seventy-seven million people voted for Joe Biden, the most ever for a Presidential candidate—an estimable accomplishment in the face of an incumbent President. The 2020 election, however, failed to produce a thoroughgoing repudiation of Trumpism and its race-based, grievance-driven brand of politics. Even amid a devastating pandemic and economic downturn, roughly seventy-two million Americans voted for the President, nine million more than voted for him in 2016. 

Biden, in his victory speech on Saturday, in Wilmington, Delaware, pledged “to be a President who seeks not to divide but to unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.” It is a message he staked his campaign on and now plans to make a central theme of his Presidency. “We have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies,” he said on Saturday. “They are not our enemies. They are Americans.” He is hardly the first politician to make such an appeal, and Republicans, inevitably, will view him as an avatar of the Party they loathe. But ordinary citizens, conveying Biden’s sentiment to their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members, might actually succeed in rekindling an American identity that is resolute against intolerance and injustice, promotes inclusion and respect for all, and brings us closer to the ideal of one nation, indivisible.  See

Bill McCormack, S.J. has noted that Joe Biden said now is the time to heal.  But what if Americans don’t want reconciliatio?  McCormack went on to explain, “It is a common trope that the nation must transcend its divisions after a presidential election, that we need to achieve unity in order to face the challenges of the future. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in his first speech after being declared the winner: ‘We are not enemies. We are Americans. This is the time to heal in America.’

But this election felt different for many Americans. The country was divided to the point that few were surprised by reports of family members cutting each other out of their lives.

David Roberts, a writer for Vox, suggested: “Instead of ‘reaching out,’ why don’t we take this opportunity to make very clear that racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism are repugnant to a decent society. When someone expresses racism, xenophobia, or authoritarianism in public, they SHOULD face backlash.” U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, was not ready to forgive and forget, tweeting, “Is anyone archiving these Trump sycophants for when they try to downplay or deny their complicity in the future?”

Perhaps Mr. Biden was wrong, and this is not the time for healing.

It can be unclear what the political elite means by words like reconciliation or unity. But Christians know that the aim of reconciliation is peace, the shalom or eirene that instantiates and points toward the kingdom of God. As Mr. Daniel Philpott writes, reconciliation fundamentally “restores and promotes the common good,” an effort made possible both by God as author of the covenant with his people and humans as God’s cooperators.

This is a beautiful image of reconciliation. But it also confronts us with some less-than-beautiful realities. If Christians are not oriented toward the kingdom of God, then they will not be able to participate in the work of reconciliation at its most profound levels. And if one discerns that others are not oriented toward the kingdom, perhaps attempts to reconcile with them are impossible or even wrong. See ”

Philip Kennicott seesTrumpism as a lifestyle disease, chronic in America. “No matter what happens to Donald Trump or who assumes the presidency in January, we can say this: He brought the truth of America to the surface. I’ll leave his policies and his politics — to the extent that he ever had policies or coherent politics — to the pundits. As a critic, I can say that he embodied, embraced or inflamed almost everything ugly in American culture, past, present and perhaps future. He made it palpable and tangible even to people inclined to see the bright side of everything. That this week’s election wasn’t a repudiation of Trumpism, that some 6 million more Americans believe in it now compared with four years ago, is horrifying. But it’s also reality, and it’s always best to face reality.

Trumpism is embedded in America and can be fought only through rigorous self-discipline, through constant surveillance of the thoughts we think, the words we use and the assumptions we make. There was white supremacy before we started thinking of it as Trumpism, but before Trump, there also was a tendency to think of it as “out there” rather than “in here.” Now we know it not as a perverse blemish on American culture but as foundational to American culture. That’s progress.

On a summer morning in 1861, holiday makers, the picnic crowd, the Washington swells went out to the For now, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s election is what we have in lieu of miracles and healing wells. We’ll have to see if that’s enough.battlefield at Manassas to watch a quick and decisive battle bring an end to the Civil War. Head east past the battlefield on Interstate 66 and you’re roughly retracing the holiday crowd’s steps when they fled back to Washington in panic and disorder after Confederate troops routed Union forces. Some of them, safe again in the nation’s capital, were perhaps slightly less ignorant about the magnitude of the war that awaited them.

Disillusionment isn’t an event — it’s a process. It doesn’t arrive and do its work all at once, like an epiphany. It is a way of living, a perpetual vigilance, a habit of mind. We may wish that Trumpism could be defeated, like an external enemy. But reality requires that we think of it as a chronic condition of American public life — not a virus that can be quarantined and perhaps cured, but a lifestyle disease rooted in sedentary thinking.”  See

Michael Gerson sees this election as a reflection of who we are as a country.  “Politics has become a function of culture. A factual debate can be adjudicated. Policy differences can be compromised. Even an ideological conflict can be bridged or transcended. But if our differences are an expression of our identities — rural vs. urban, religious vs. secular, nationalist vs. cosmopolitan — then political loss threatens a whole way of life.

Donald Trump was elected to the office once held by Thomas Jefferson because he understood or intuited the cultural nature of American politics. His 2016 election was proof that a presidential candidate can win without proposing specific policies. His 2020 campaign was proof that an incumbent can nearly win reelection without having performed basic public duties. Policy and performance are irrelevant when there is only one political question: Is he on our side in the great cultural conflict? 

Any political system that preempts the Golden Rule is an attack on the ideal of human equality at the foundation of democracy. If we hold to constitutional values, dehumanization is a dangerous and discrediting form of hypocrisy.

In a divided nation, Americans need to defend a space in their lives where cable news does not reach, where social media does not incite, and where the basic, natural tendency is to treat other people like human beings. This offers not just the prospect of greater tolerance, but the hope of healing. See

Alyssa Rosenberg reported that after the election Kamala Harris invoked joy, Joe Biden asked for reconciliation.  Can they get both?  “For many Americans, the idea of joy is not exactly compatible with the prospect of a return to the way things were, and reconciliation seems highly dubious.”  See

For previous commentary on states rights and the future of democracy, see Musings on Megalomania, States Rights and the Future of Democracy (#282, 4/18/2020) at

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