The rabid partisanship in Washington and in many statehouses, ours among them, is so extreme that, according to polls, it sickens most voters. The public alarm over stalemate and partisan strife is about the only healthy sign in the body politic.
But the most provocative extremists are correct that this is not new but a robust American tradition. The country has experienced greater antagonisms, like the half-century of partisan fury over slavery and states rights before the Civil War, when men carried guns into the halls of Congress to protect themselves from their hotheaded colleagues from the North and South, culminating in the South's worst fear, the election of Abraham Lincoln. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was clubbed nearly to death in the Senate chamber in 1856 for accusing a South Carolina senator of being a pimp for that "old harlot — slavery." Sumner apparently chose not to shoot him or else he didn't have a sidearm that day.
You can find close historical parallels to the bizarre hatred of Barack Obama, who Republicans claim is plotting to establish a European socialist state in America, justifying their stop-him-at-all-costs strategy. President John Adams accused Thomas Jefferson, his hated vice president, and Jefferson's party of plotting to bring the bloody anarchy of the French Revolution to our shores.
The Federalists/Republicans then and now were right about the Democrats Jefferson and Obama in about the same measure, which is to say none at all.
Waves of intense partisanship have marked turbulent periods after the Civil War — brought on by the populism of Republican Teddy Roosevelt, by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and by Bill Clinton's interference with the conservative revolution. Were they hated by the other party!
The United States decided long ago that James Madison, not George Washington, was right about these matters. Madison thought partisan rancor, though it might be extreme and at times harmful, was generally good for democracy. But it disgusted the father of our country, who deplored the party sniping in his farewell address because it "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms." He hoped it would not become the tradition. I like the old gentleman more and more, but the country has paid him no heed.
All that history aside, is there something about the current partisan hysteria over Barack Obama that is unique and that justifies the public's alarm? I think so.
It is this: The common welfare, at least as each side saw it, was nearly always at least a consideration in the partisan posturing. It is not today. For four years after November 2008 the principal force of the Republican Party in Washington had only one end. The Senate Republican leader spelled it out bluntly: the defeat of Obama. That being no longer possible, now it is to see that Obama does not succeed in the slightest endeavor and that the country does not prosper or make the slightest progress in any of its manifold trials while Obama is in charge and might conceivably get credit. He must not be seen as successful or the country as healing.
Is that putting it too harshly?
The voting rules as dictated by Republicans now prevent a vote in either house on any matter that the party's extremists do not want a vote on. Sixty percent of the Senate must consent to any important vote. The operative rule in the House of Representatives is that no vote will occur unless a bare majority of Republicans—118 Republicans in a membership of 435—wants it to. Never has the House been so undemocratic. Thus another year will pass without Congress making it possible for millions of underwater homeowners to refinance their mortgages and rejoin the economic mainstream, which would be a huge shot for the languid economy. No part of the president's program will get a vote.
In his state of the union address, the president begged Congress just to vote. Vote no and defeat the bills and nominations if you please, but just vote, he said. But that would suggest that the country was on a glide path to safety. Mustn't happen.
The Affordable Care Act and any of its parts must not succeed. The worst of all possible outcomes is that a large majority will come to see it as a very good thing. What if they should begin to say, "I still hate the dusky fellow with the Middle Eastern name, but who misled us about his health-care thing?"
Thus, a minority in the Arkansas legislature who were elected on campaigns to oppose Obama and Obamacare will prevent more than 215,000 poor working families from getting health insurance and stop billions of dollars in health-care assistance at the state line.
Routine Cabinet appointments, including a conservative Republican war hero as defense secretary, are blocked or delayed so that the administration seems in perpetual disarray. A fiscal cliff, such as the prospect of the country not paying the bills run up by prior Republican governments, must always lie ahead so that uncertainty hangs over the economy and the financial sector.
If the economy is growing robustly, the deficit coming down, medical inflation plunging and the government running smoothly, people might get the wrong idea about Obama.
In the end you have to frame in a word they love but hate in this context. Is this really patriotic?