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Shapiro: Excessive partisanship? Maybe not so much

Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor philosophy St. Xavier University Chicago practicing trial lawyer regular columnist for Litigatijournal LitigatiSectiAmerican Bar

Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago, a practicing trial lawyer and a regular columnist for Litigation, the journal of the Litigation Section of the American Bar Association.

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:27AM



The conventional wisdom today is that America is experiencing a period of unprecedented partisanship in its politics, to an extent that the system of government devised by the nation’s founders may be “broken.”

This idea draws some support from media reports of an unusual level of acrimony in the current presidential campaign, amid congressional activity and throughout state and local politics.

Appearances may be deceiving, however. The perception that today’s partisanship is either unexpected or unusual is not consistent with either the Founding Fathers’ predictions for our nation and Constitution or the experience of American politics during most of the country’s history.

Certainly, the founders understood that politics in America were likely to be fractious and rambunctious.

While planning for a large commercial republic, they wrote into the Constitution many features such as the Electoral College, presidential appointments and the Senate — specifically to absorb or deflect the effects of faction, which, fortified by popular whim and prejudice, they thought both inevitable and likely to be fierce.

Throughout the last 225 years, partisanship in American politics, as the founders anticipated, has been rampant. Even leaving aside the Civil War era, when a U.S. senator was nearly caned to death on the floor of Congress, our politics have always been wild and woolly affairs — as shown by such periods as the 1820s and 1830s, the 1880s and 1890s, the 1900s, and the 1930s.

Yet the Constitution, and the country, have handily survived.

Indeed, taking all of American history into account, periods of partisan calm seem to be the greater anomaly.

One reason that today’s politics may seem so partisan is that such fervor was somewhat dampened during the second half of the 20th century, as the universally perceived communist threat served as a unifying force and engendered a rough consensus in foreign affairs.

Nor is it clear that our present politics are really so partisan after all. There’s much evidence to suggest that the American people are relatively unified — shifting slightly more Democratic or slightly more Republican, in this or that election, but never lurching decisively in either direction.

Most presidential elections since the end of World War II, for example, have been close as first one party, then the other, has come out slightly on top.

There is always some truth behind the conventional wisdom, however, which is why it became the conventional wisdom.

There may be greater partisanship and division at the level of our leadership rather than in the populace as a whole.

If so, we should focus on those things, such as gerrymandered legislative districts and ill-conceived campaign finance rules, that allow our elected leaders to be less accountable for having excessively partisan views.

Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago, a practicing trial lawyer and a regular columnist for Litigation, the journal of the Litigation Section of the American Bar Association.



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