To divide this cockeyed world in two, throw your pride to one side, it’s the least you can do. Beatniks and politics, nothing is new. A yardstick for lunatics, one point of view. Who cares what games we choose, little to win, but nothing to lose. This is the bridge verse to the song Incense and Peppermints recorded by the Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1967. Written by John S. Carter and Tim Gilbert, the song was actually a B-side recording. It is a classic of the drug influenced psychedelic period and references the incense that was burned to mask the smell of marijuana in the air and the peppermints are used to mask it on a person’s breath.
I happen to love psychedelic music, and this 50-year-old song is quite prophetic. Look at the lyrics and they could describe today, with the cockeyed world divided in two, where lunatics all maintain just one point of view. I see this all over the political debate today and just wonder to myself, what on earth is going on.
When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution they had a number of very specific concerns. The most important of these was that the United States not become a repressive state like Great Britain. They set up a government complete with a series of checks and balances (most of which no longer exist) to ensure that nobody could become King, and that no state could impose its will on the others. The Constitution was in many ways designed to control what the Founders called factions by forcing the diverse groups found across the country to work together in the national interest. George Washington himself in his farewell address warned that political factions may seek to obstruct the execution of the laws created by the government, or to prevent the branches of government from enacting the powers provided them by the constitution. Such factions may claim to be trying to answer popular demands or solve pressing problems, but their true intentions are to take the power from the people and place it in the hands of unjust men. He warned that groups seeking to overthrow the government may strive to pass constitutional amendments to weaken the government to a point where it is unable to defend itself from political factions, enforce its laws, and protect the people’s rights and property.
However, while Washington was advising against factions, his two main political associates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were in the process of creating a two-party system to control the government. And through a number of name changes, these two parties continue today as the Democrat and Republican political parties.
Looking back to the turn of the century, political rancor was high – likely just as high as it is today, and friends, egged on by their political differences even refused to speak to each other (sound familiar). Jefferson and John Adams, two of the most important people who worked together to establish the country, even refused to speak to each other in the 12 years following the elections of 1800, which were likely the dirtiest in American political history. The elections of 1824, 1860 and 1912 were at least as divisive as the 2016 election. Fistfights regularly broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives, and in 1856, a full-scale riot broke out with 50 members involved. So even today’s highly partisan and divisive environment has not reached Civil War era levels.
But one thing is different now – the lack of a political middle. This is something that has really occurred over the past few years. Both political parties have become more extreme, and the amount of middle ground has become very narrow. According to the Cook Political Report, there are only 72 swing districts left in the House of Representatives, or just about 16.5 percent of the total. This is down from 38 percent in 1997. In effect, the House of Representative is completely partisan, and only 72 of the 454 members even have to pay any attention to constituents from the other side of the aisle. This has led to a Congress that is more and more beholden to the extreme wings of their factions, the so-called Progressives on the Democrat side, and the Freedom Caucus on the Republican side.
At the same time, Congress has begun to operate more like a parliament than the republican (small r) representative body that it was meant to be. Since both Democratic and Republican members vote almost strictly along party lines (as in a parliament), there are no compromises between the two parties, with the faction in power working only to appease its most extreme wing in order to achieve a majority of votes. In effect, the back benchers are controlling the agenda and the opposition party simply works to obstruct legislation. In a political environment like this, the most extreme members (think Maxine Waters or Jim Jordan) have a lot more leverage than they should.
In addition, the political system may be leading people to actually relocate to areas with more like-minded individuals. Diversity of thought disappears and Congress becomes even more partisan. This is likely happening. As the Cook Political Report points out, only 11.5 percent of the nation’s counties can be considered bi-partisan, down from 43 percent in 1996. In other words, the American people are separating themselves even faster than they are separating the factions in Congress.
Washington warned against this. In his farewell address he said One of the expedients of party …is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other[s]. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
This is where we are. If he was a 1960s beatnik, Washington may have said To divide this cockeyed world in two, throw your pride to one side, it’s the least you can do. Who cares what games we choose, little to win, but nothing to lose.