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Political Unity Peaked After Attacks

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America” hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Liberals, on the other hand, feel as if they are being asked to compromise with an increasingly unreasonable, inflexible tea-party-dominated Republican Party that wants to dismantle a safety net built over the past 80 years and treats modern science with disdain. They see the conservatives’ view of change as reactionary and assume the worst of motives in the opposition.

Each side, of course, is cheered on by a cable television network with strongly ideological prime-time hosts opposed to political compromise and by bloggers who have set themselves up as judges of ideological purity.

The growth of “outside” political organizations and media watchdogs has changed our politics, empowering the more ideological elements and undermining traditional institutions of authority.

There are possible institutional changes that could produce more centrist elected officials — more open primaries, more states using commissions to draw Congressional and legislative district lines, a third political party in the center, for example — but those changes are difficult to bring about, and it isn’t clear how much change each proposal would produce.

The reality of our current politics of division and partisanship is not what many would prefer, but at least it is real.

Those periods after 9/11 and after Giffords’ near-fatal attack, when Americans focused on self-reflection and healing, were aberrations. Both tragedies created artificial moments of when important public policy questions were put aside.

Our differences certainly didn’t disappear at those times of tragedy. We simply chose to ignore them and focus on other matters. And when we refocused our attention on those issues that will determine our future, issues on which we have strong differences of opinion, partisanship and a coarseness of tone automatically followed.

Changes in our political system and in the media, combined with a heightened sense of the high stakes involved in government’s decisions, have produced a more partisan, polarized, nasty political dialogue. Ignoring that and romanticizing about the tone in the days after 9/11 won’t accomplish very much.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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