Reporter’s Notebook: Slowing the pendulum swing
I normally steer clear of national politics in this space. I’m paid to pay more attention to West Virginia government and politics. But it doesn’t mean I don’t observe the national scene since actions by our federal government trickle down to the state.
In two weeks, the Electoral College will cast its ballots for President of the United States. Barring any unforeseen shenanigans, former vice president and U.S Senator Joe Biden will carry the majority of the electoral votes.
As we enter into what I feel is the final phase of COVID-19 with vaccines around the corner, but cases also accelerating, and as we also enter into the Christmas season where we are all supposed to be better people, I’ve been thinking a lot about the divisions that have developed in our country along political lines.
When describing our division to friends, I have likened it to a swinging pendulum. For years and decades, that pendulum has mostly swung consistently, like a dependable grandfather clock. Sometimes in our history that pendulum picked up speed. The Civil War is a good example of what can happen when the pendulum goes erratic, but it was important for that to happen to right a wrong: the enslavement of our fellow humans.
This time, the pendulum has been swinging wide and fast again and not for good reasons.
Political parties were never really supposed to be part of the American system. George Washington hated them and warned against them, but they formed regardless. But since they became cemented in our system, they served several purposes, including controlling and vetting who runs for office under their party’s banner.
They’re supposed to be different from each other. There is supposed to be a rivalry, particularly of ideas. It’s healthy. Frankly, I believe it takes a combination of Republicans and Democrats, liberal ideas and conservative ideas (even libertarian and some socialistic ideas) to run this country. When one party has control of both the executive and legislative branches, the system auto-corrects if they go too far one direction or another.
That’s the healthy version of a slow and steady pendulum. Sure, both parties will strongly debate the issues of the day, but even in the near past those statesmen could separate the debate from their friendships, which often crossed the aisle.
But for the last 30 years, the pendulum has been increasing in its swing and speed. It started off slowly at first, with fights between President Bill Clinton and Republicans who soon took control of Congress. Both sides saw each other not as people with different views on how government should work, but enemies.
It got worse after President George W. Bush won election — one of the first victims in recent memory of being accused of stealing an election. We came together after the attacks of 9/11, but we began to split as a people again with the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 financial crisis.
The pendulum’s pace picked up with the election of President Barack Obama, the first black president. The conspiracy theories about his birth started spreading. On one hand he helped fuel the start of the Tea Party, but also the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which both spawned other movements we see today. The pendulum swing that brought about Obama led eight years later to the wide swing the other direction that gave us President Donald Trump.
We now appear to be more divided than we have ever been. The COVID crisis has thrown gasoline on the flames by isolating many of us from friends and families. Social media has created echo chambers where people can simply tune out anything that doesn’t align with what they believe. I know people who will share dubious links to questionable sources, but throw a fit that our newspapers require a subscription to view articles on the website written by qualified and dedicated reporters.
In the poem “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats wrote “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Pendulums are weights that swing to help keep time. They are meant to swing at small and steady intervals. They’re not meant to swing in fast circles like a centrifuge. That’s a good way to send your pendulum flying off and break your clock.
What the nation needs is for the pendulum to be slowed down before we have a catastrophe. Our institutions have been stress-tested, such as our election systems, and have survived for now. I question whether they can survive another stress test like they’ve gone through the last few weeks.
For example, I don’t see how one can claim vast amounts of voter fraud and submit next to no evidence to the press or the courts and not see how trust in our elections going forward is severely damaged. It’s wrong, whether you’re a Donald Trump on the right, or a Stacy Abrams on the left. The stoking of irrational fears — such as the Democratic conspiracy theory that the U.S. Postal Service was purposely making changes to slow down absentee ballots or the conservative conspiracy theory that Venezuela and Georgia Republicans worked to steal the election from Trump — are completely inappropriate.
Biden might be on track to get the official approval of the Electoral College, but he will not be able to run the country from his political left. He will need to be a centrist. Voters sent a similar message to the House of Representatives, which is within a handful of seats of going Republican in 2022. Whether Republicans win the two U.S. Senate runoff elections in January or not, neither party will have the 60 votes needed to move things forward.
At least for two to four years, these factors will help slow the pendulum back to where it should be. The executive branch and both chambers of the legislative branch will need to work together for the general welfare of the people, not the ideological fringes or the loud but few-in-number social media mobs.
I’m hoping that the next few years we can restore faith in our form of government and our institutions. A consistent pendulum will help keep the clock working properly.
Steven Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.