On polarization: can we agree on anything anymore?
After months of unnecessarily painful-to-watch negotiation and infighting, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, commonly referred to as the Infrastructure Bill, passed the House and will be presented to President Joe Biden. On the surface, it seems as though most Americans, Republican and Democratic, should celebrate that $550 billion of much needed improvements to the country’s bridges, roads, public transportation, water and energy infrastructure are on the way. More surprisingly, 13 Republicans in the house joined the overwhelming Democratic majority in supporting it, an incredibly rare show of bipartisanship.
Indeed, infrastructure investment has long been thought of as the final policy issue that Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on, with elected officials from the last several administrations trying, and failing, to pass their own versions of similar bills. The bill is popular too, with more than half of registered voters supporting it, according to some polls. While it is significantly smaller than the one proposed by President Biden in March, any bill being passed at all, especially since the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the country’s infrastructure systems a C-minus, is cause for celebration.
However, unsurprisingly, many do not see it that way. In fact, the 13 Republican representatives who voted in favor of the bill are now facing visceral criticism along party lines from both their own fellow elected officials and voters who do not live in their districts. Some have, more tamely, been called traitors, while others have outright faced death threats. Curiously, most of the calls these representatives have received are not from members of their districts, and few, if any, of the criticisms of the bill have been on the basis of actual policy. Evidently, such passion over a bill that is over simple, uncaring bridges and roads is not so much in favor of improving the country’s aging, fumbling skeletal system, as it is nothing more than a political betrayal along party lines that renders the context of any given vote as irrelevant.
Instead, they are reduced to abstract notions of political allegiance, with contrarianism and sabotage, where something as innocuous as improving the structural integrity of hundreds of aging bridges bifurcates entire swaths of the country. One such representative, Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) of Staten Island, a staunch acolyte of President Trump, supported the bill on the basis of her community suffering a great deal of damage from Hurricane Sandy and the fact that it would have actively funded her community’s disaster resilience practices, yet faced criticism based solely on the fact that she was a Republican supporting a Democratic policy proposal. Others did so for similar reasons, with Rep. Fred Upton lamenting how the bill became “political football,” saying that the country “can’t afford this kind of dysfunction any longer.”
He is right. Voting for or against virtually any bill has not become the end goal of a cause of helping one’s constituents, community and country as a whole, but a contest of sabotage and one-upmanship. One cannot possibly read and internalize the details of the bill and then proceed to criticize it on the basis of it simply being a Democratic policy proposal. Terrifyingly, even this bipartisan vote, a close one to be sure, is a rarity.
Politics, particularly in legislative practice, is no longer a contest and debate to see who has the best ideas with the end goal of benefiting the American people. It has become a game almost resembling geopolitics between rival military powers. When the handful of Republican representatives dared to break with their party by favoring a piece of legislation that would benefit the people who elected them, they faced not ideological criticism but accusations of treasonous disloyalty. Does anyone believe that it should be called politics anymore? It is as if we’re watching our country become more factioned, fractured and divided by forces that we Americans simply have no power to influence.
The only emotions present at the outcome of an essential piece of legislation’s passage are either happiness or rage, both of which are nearly entirely devoid of meaningful political or intellectual inquiry. Why else would some feel the need to issue death threats to representatives who do not even serve their congressional districts? Why would they see anything that is negotiated between two parties who are rarely able to compromise as a failure? Where does that leave us? How can we continue as a democracy if the very functioning of government falls prey to the raw, unrefined emotions of tribalism and conquest?
My impression is that even something as simple and as free of controversy as infrastructure investment will succumb to the same veneer of confrontation and controversy that other, more pressing issues have so needlessly been. The unity this country so desperately needs at a time of unprecedented turmoil is not only impossible but fruitless to even attempt to pursue. Even the simple act of trying to find compromise becomes one of conflict, for attempting to “agree” with someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum yields nothing but accusations from one end to the other.
I want nothing more than for this not to be the case, but even wanting is an act of foolishness. In the end, the people who will suffer the most from this are those who are fighting this very fight: Americans.