Political commentators do a lot of deploring of polarization these days. They write as if this were a new feature of our postmodern age, the result of the divisive effects of social media — but this is not a new problem at all. It worried our Founding Fathers more than any other threat to the Republic they sought to establish.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned that “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” We remember George Washington’s injunction against foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address, but who recalls his even more fervent warning of “the baneful effects … of the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities”? Or as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh put it somewhat less eloquently to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, “what goes around, comes around.”
For some political analysts, the remedy is a Solomonic threat to split the difference. Bipartisanship is called for, crossing the aisle, and all that. None of them to my knowledge has adopted the radical remedy favored by an advanced thinker of the Academy of Laputa, as conveyed by Jonathan Swift’s immortal Captain Lemuel Gulliver: “You take a Hundred Leaders of each Party, you dispose them into Couples of such whose heads are nearest of a size; then let two nice Operators saw off the Occiput of each couple at the same time, in such a manner that the Brain may be equally divided. Let the Occiputs thus cut off be interchanged, applying each to the head of his opposite Party-man,” he argued, and the two half brains would soon come to a good understanding.
It is an intriguing idea. Whether it would work with say, Chuck Schumer and Ted Cruz, is open to question.
In this climate of division and rancor, Maine is fortunate to have Sen. Angus King in Washington. His bipartisanship is not the sort that splits the difference between right and wrong. In a polarized time, his thoughtful leadership has been felt in Washington on foreign policy issues that do not make the headlines, from Arctic policy to the highly classified work of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Its bipartisan conclusions that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election for the benefit of Donald Trump gave the lie to the president’s denials, in sharp contrast to the shameful politicization of its House counterpart under Rep. Devin Nunes. The Senate select committee’s work is a reminder that the two parties can still work together when leaders like King are in the room.
In sharp contrast to the House committee under its partisan chairman, the Senate committee has been mostly leakproof and careful not to interfere with the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose sword of Damocles hangs suspended over the wretched reality TV show that is the Trump administration.
Legislative oversight of our intelligence agencies is not a minor matter. It is crucial for the preservation of our liberties. Sending King back to Washington in November is one way to ensure that it continues, at least on the Senate side. On the House side, voters can do their part in the 2nd Congressional District to ensure that Nunes and his ilk are sent packing by replacing Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who voted for the Republican “soak the poor” tax plan, with Jared Golden, a young veteran of our endless wars who has in Abraham Lincoln’s words borne the battle.
It is true, I suppose, that we are in a new era — but then we always are. Some of us remember the days when our minds were concentrated by the Cold War, and partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge most of the time. Is it utopian to imagine that at least in foreign policy those days could return? That may be too much to hope — but we can take a step in that direction by sending King back to Washington.
Laurence Pope served in senior positions in the U.S. Department of State during a 30-year career and as charge d’affaires in Libya after the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. He lives in Portland.
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