This country’s real divide: a desire for total victory vs. a desire to govern

If you’re sick of this election, welcome to the club.

To many Americans, the 2016 elections have been historically awful, with two terrible candidates constantly hurling insults at one another. The negativity — which is increasingly pervasive every year — seemed to reach a fever pitch in 2016, enveloping not just the usual partisan fanatics on both sides but everyday people and the presidential candidates themselves. We heard hysterical pronouncements from both parties that the opposition was going to bring about some version of the apocalypse, and that to vote for their candidate was going to fundamentally change America in disastrous ways.

It’s easy to get caught up in that kind of rhetoric, of course, and it’s easy to start believing it — especially when responsible people who should know better repeat it. The truth, though, is quite a bit different. The fact is that America has been divided in the past and recovered quite nicely, often stronger than it was before. As a nation we’ve weathered a civil war, invasions, terrorist attacks, economic catastrophes, and two world wars. Surely we can make it through yet another nasty, disappointing, presidential campaign, no matter who wins.

The real question is, where do we go from here?

After all, once this election has come and gone, the country will keep chugging along. Our elected officials will — for a few moments, at least — need to step away from the hyperbole and the histrionics, and start to sit down to do some actual governing. Or will they? With Republicans promising to keep Clinton from doing anything, and Democrats labeling Trump a threat to American democracy, can we really move beyond this election?

A Trump supporter who interrupted remarks by President Obama during a Hillary Clinton rally on Friday in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

A Trump supporter who interrupted remarks by President Obama during a Hillary Clinton rally on Friday in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

There’s a risk that the partisan divide that candidates in both parties exacerbated and exploited this year continues well beyond the election. They’ve set up their supporters with the expectation of absolute victory or defeat, when in reality governing in a democracy is a series of compromises with give-and-take. If one side takes full control of government, their supporters will expect to get everything they want for the two years they have control. However, if government remains divided, the partisans on both sides will root for stalemate and zero compromise.

That’s why we should all begin to move away from this inflammatory rhetoric and slash-and-burn campaigns. It makes it increasingly difficult to govern when candidates paint their opponents as evil and promise their supporters the moon, the sun and the sky.

The real divide is not just between liberals and conservatives, but also between those who demand total victory for their side and those who’d like to see some actual governing accomplished in this country.  There are, after all, plenty of issues which are not particularly partisan, and where good ideas can be taken from both sides. We saw some of this during the Republican primaries, with candidates offering serious solutions on issues like criminal justice reform and immigration.

Unfortunately, if we want a better kind of politics, we can’t sit around and wait for the politicians to do it for us, nor can we wave a magic wand and force people to be more civil. Rather, it’s up to us as voters to demand better from those who represent us. To do that, those of us who are sick of the gridlock and partisanship need to get involved at every stage of politics, including in primaries, and reward candidates who show up with real ideas.

If we do, we might have a chance at something better; if we don’t, we can expect the destructive partisanship to worsen in years to come.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.