If you seek evidence of how political polarization has caused many of us to be a little more guarded in how we discuss politics, even as the politicians throw such caution to the wind, consider Friday’s come-and-go reunion for former Baylor University political science students and faculty during Baylor Homecoming. Those on the front lines in the classrooms were gracious, thoughtful but careful in how they articulated political dynamics in our politically charged age, especially when I showed up with questions about how students react to what some experts label a constitutional crisis in our midst.
“It is a political issue, it is a constitutional issue, but more importantly it is both of those,” said David Bridge, 36, Baylor associate professor of political science . “People with different partisan viewpoints might see the Constitution differently, but maybe that’s one of the reasons they joined different political parties in the first place, because they do see the Constitution differently. I think I’m going to leave it at that.”
Bridge’s remarks were proven true a few minutes later when Baylor constitutional scholar David Nichols, 68, and I quibbled over whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should have pressed for a formal House vote to initiate the current impeachment inquiry rather than simply announcing such an inquiry. I argued that nothing in the Constitution specifically requires any such impeachment inquiry vote; Nichols conceded as much but argued such a vote was clearly implied in constitutional context and in fact would have given greater democratic force to the congressional subpoenas that the White House now refuses to obey.
I wasn’t convinced, but I found Nichols’ argument compelling enough to wish the House had indeed addressed the matter head-on by holding such a vote. Yet broader questions arise: Which of us in the final analysis is the strict constructionist in this case? Or is it even that simple anymore, given that all of us are making constitutionally based interpretations?
Ivy Hamerly, 44, Baylor senior lecturer of political studies who teaches students why some democracies abroad flourish and others falter, pointed out to me that the meaning of simple terminology is becoming lost in the overheated political rhetoric: “I mean, one student this week asked what a ‘coup’ was because we were talking about a military coup and how that is a way to tear down a democracy. Some of the students had heard the word used in the media in various ways that don’t match how we use it. And so we talked about how we use that word in this field.”
President Trump recently suggested Democrats are trying to stage a coup to undermine his controversial 2016 election. To quote one of the president’s tweets: “As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People.”
“You may hear a lot of different ways people use that word in other fields,” Hamerly told me, “but we’re trying to make sure we can have a sensible conversation working with the same word that means the same thing, at least in our classroom.”
And then you finally wander over to the table where the hair is grayer, the faces more creased, the opinions more robust, possibly because Baylor political science professor emeritus Lyle C. Brown, 93, of Robinson and former students Gary Keith of San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word and international businessman Ray Atkinson of Austin, both 67 and formerly of Waco, have by now digested political theory galore. They have seen unprecedented times, come to conclusions about life and politics and worry little if at all about respecting certain political sensibilities.
“If I had been able to foresee this situation 40 years ago, when these fellows were my students, and I had been tempted to tell them what was going to happen, I probably would have lost my job,” Brown told me after letting Keith and Atkinson lament current affairs, including their fears for the republic amid destruction of two centuries of political norms. “Nobody would have believed something like this 40 years ago. I fear that we’re going to have a depression as a result of all this craziness or we’re going to have an atomic war because of the inept leadership, demented leadership.”
Brown was just getting warmed up.
“This polarization, I think, began with the Vietnam War,” he said. “We’ve never been the same since. I just find it hard to imagine that we’ve allowed ourselves to get into this shape. You know, I grew up knowing people who had fought in the Civil War. I’m really concerned that the genie is going to get out of the bottle as far as atomic warfare is concerned. If we don’t start it, what about China? What about India? What about Pakistan?
“The environmental problem, nuclear warfare — these are the things I lay awake worrying about at night. The day-to-day politics are another show. It’s serious but it’s simply a manifestation of our decline internationally. I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to predict what’s going to happen. I hear people from time to time saying we’ll have to solve our problems here in the United States with a civil war. I’ve studied a lot about the Civil War mainly because I’m 93 and people I knew as a boy who were in their 80s or 90s were veterans [of that war].
“In the rural area of New York where I grew up, every able-bodied man participated in the Civil War. And my wife comes from Louisiana, the rural area of the Mississippi Delta, and every white man participated on the other side. And it took us a hundred years to begin to recover from that. In 1945 I was hitchhiking through Vicksburg, Mississippi. I wanted to see the Civil War battlefield in Mississippi. One night when I was there I remember the local people telling me how excited they were to be celebrating the Fourth of July for the first time since the Civil War. The Fourth of July had become a damn Yankee celebration and they didn’t celebrate it till 1945.”
The intellectual towers of Baylor may witness first-hand how history repeats itself to disastrous degrees. Keith mentioned how a Baylor alumnus has only now been swept up in the present national scandal: a former congressman who led doggedly in the congressional oversight of the Benghazi attack — and now leaves his Fox News perch to help the White House resist congressional oversight. “Ray and I graduated in ’74, we were here during Watergate. So I’m walking to the building here today and realize I’m walking down the street where I saw [Baylor Law School grad and Watergate special prosecutor] Leon Jaworski leading the Baylor homecoming parade in 1973. And here we are. We put all that to rest and here we are in the Age of Trump with another Baylor grad involved in impeachment on the other side this time. I’m talking about Trey Gowdy.”
Keith said the ongoing chaos infecting the politicians, news media and broader public can prove confounding even for political scientists accustomed to separating political wheat from chaff.
“We got two hats. One is political scientist, one is citizen, but they kind of go back and forth,” he said, addressing today’s question of political polarization in America. “As far as what caused it, everybody has a camp they’re in. And there is no one cause. Using a methodological approach, it is multi-causal because Russia had a lot to do with it [polarization], but that’s just the immediate thing. It’s so much that happened before, including Congress. You used to have members of Congress who were first devoted to Congress. I mean, they would defend Congress as [a constitutional] institution against the president. But now it’s all, ‘You’re either with the president or against the president,’ which can be good or bad except it has eroded the separation of powers and the checks and balances that are part of the Constitution.”
Atkinson suggested the situation has only worsened as politically obsessed individuals now deny pivotal facts that conflict with their chosen ideology or preconceived political narratives. Result: Few Americans evolve intellectually through revelation and epiphany. We remain in our ideological bunkers, blinders fixed, ears waxed.
“It’s the technology of today,” Atkinson told me. “For most of our lives, you had people who were conservative, you had people who were liberal and you had people who were in between. But our source of information was a common one. There was a source of information where some [of the news media] might have been slightly leaning to one philosophy or another, but only slightly. But people could rely on that information as being basically true. And then you could form your opinions based on that.
“With the advent of cable news and the Internet and blogs and all that, it is now a natural phenomenon for us to avoid any conflict and to only consider input that makes us feel good or with which we agree. So we now have such polarization between groups that they totally do not understand the other person’s perspective, nor do they have any desire to understand the other guy’s perspective. I call it insulation. We have insulated ourselves against being exposed to things we don’t want to be exposed to.”
All of this was eventually shelved in favor of Baylor Homecoming activities and other pleasant weekend distractions in Waco, but not before David Nichols cautioned me not to count out the next generation in politics and policy in terms of attentiveness and distilling the ferocity of today’s political debate in favor of reason, facts and consistency.
“It’s much easier to convince students to see different sides of an issue than adults and colleagues because they’re not as invested,” he told me. “However, they are interested, if not more interested.”