Way back during the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union were locked in a tense face-off for decades. Both sides had huge arsenals of thermonuclear devices. But there was a doctrine of military strategy called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, that kept the missiles in their silos. It became a foundation in the national security policies of both great powers that the use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by either side would bring about immediate and total retaliation by the other side and cause the complete annihilation of both.
We’re still here, so I guess, to some degree, MAD worked.
But today, nearly 25 years after the end of the Cold War, we seem to be in another battle to the death for dominance and power. This one is within the United States, but it’s every bit as MAD. Our two political parties are locked in a hyper-partisan life and death struggle for control of the federal government and the national agenda.
Thus far, with a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate, each side has been able to stop the other one cold. Nearly everything that passes in the House is dead on arrival in the Senate. And just about anything that attracts enough votes to get out of the Senate is dead as a mackerel in the House. As a result, the Congress of the United States has accomplished absolutely nothing of substance.
That leaves the Executive Branch to faithfully execute. But that hasn’t worked out so well either. Every time this president tries to use executive authority to do something because Congress can’t seem to, he gets whacked for usurpation of power and violating the Constitution. And if he waits for Congress to act, he’s pilloried for a lack of leadership. It all sounds a bit MAD.
But wait! It gets better. As a result of the MAD doctrine being practiced in Congress, mutual destruction is actually taking place. The American public isn’t wild about either party. That’s nothing new for Republicans; 33% of the public has a favorable view of the GOP and 56% unfavorable. That hasn’t changed much in decades. But now Democrats are viewed unfavorably by 51% of the public, and favorably by only 39%. That’s a significant drop for Dems, who’ve never polled below 46% favorable in 30 years.
This validates the MAD strategy. The two parties in Congress have continued to fire their weapons at each other. and those weapons have proved lethal, not to the combatants, but to the rest of the country. Helped along by large puffs of hot air, the radioactive fallout has drifted far from the Capitol and infected a growing segment of the American people. As a result, trying to rebuild a functional government in the ashes of the current war, assuming it ever ends, will be difficult because so many Americans have chosen ideological sides.
“Twenty years ago, fewer Americans were consistently liberal or conservative in their views about politics and society, and even those who were ideologically oriented did not express the animosity toward the other side that is common today” reports Pew Research. “In 1994 – hardly a moment of goodwill and compromise in American politics – just 23% of consistent liberals expressed a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party. And just 28% of consistent conservatives saw the Democratic Party in equally negative terms.”
But today, more Americans are aligned to their toenails with one party or the other, and the majority of ideologically-oriented Americans really deep down don’t like the other side. In major political campaigns, the two top priorities have always been to motivate your base voters — those who start out being for you or your party — and to try to win over most of the undecided voters. However, the undecided voters are a rapidly shrinking group. In the last few presidential races, most of a campaign’s resources have been aimed at identifying and motivating voters already committed to a candidate or political party.
What does this mean for the ability of government to govern? “In principle,” concludes Pew Research, “most Americans want their political leaders to compromise. A 56% majority prefers political leaders who ‘are willing to compromise,’ while 39% prefer leaders who ‘stick to their positions.'”
“Yet, Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’”
While Democrats and Republicans in Congress are busy trying to kill each other off, they’re infecting millions of bystanders. The question is whether or not opposing sides will ever take their fingers off the launch buttons long enough to look around and notice that they could be destroying the whole country.
Dave Helfert has been a political and governmental communicator for more than 30 years, writing speeches for elected officials and candidates, creating media in more than 200 political campaigns, working for six years as a Communications Director in the Clinton Administration and then nine years in the U.S. House.