The United States is mired in an era of political absolutism


Paterno, a former Penn State University quarterbacks coach, ran for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in 2014 and is a consultant on a variety of issues.

For a nation already drunk on the partisan pursuit of absolutist politics, it seems likely that the Supreme Court is about to uncork a 1973 vintage of Grapes of Wrath Vineyards called “Overthrowing Roe v. Wade.” The landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade was then a controversial decision; it stayed that way. Overthrowing it will trigger a new round of controversial policies.

This column is not about the legal merits of either side, but how this case adds fuel to the fire in our current era of 50.1 percent absolutism.

A decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will spark a nationwide scramble to win the election and seize the reins of power at the state and federal levels. And for the louder and more visible aspects of the problem, there can be no compromise. But these days, that seems to be the case for every issue.

Absolutism is about raw power and is the bane of our current politics. The sides dig in with non-negotiable answers to every problem. Compromise and collaboration are never acceptable.

It’s a philosophy that means that once one side reaches 50.1%, they use that majority to try and bring back whatever they want. They use it to turn a blind eye to ethics violations on their side and to push their agenda forward without interference from anyone else.

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For the 49.9% of the minority, this new age means obstruction, refusal to cooperate in the hope that things will not go well and that the majority will be transferred to their party.

For four years with a GOP president, we heard about infrastructure. And what happened when a Democrat entered the White House? Many GOP infrastructure hawks suddenly turned to “No” votes. Today, many of them are running around their districts taking credit for new infrastructure projects coming home. But that’s the nature of where we are.

To win and then secure power, some will do anything. But there are two fundamental things that need to be protected: the justice system and our electoral process.

The justice system is better when we remember that our system is founded so that innocent people are not wrongfully imprisoned. And our electoral system is better when we make voting as accessible as possible for everyone. The pushback on these rights has become a cause because people who didn’t like the election results continually lie about non-existent large-scale fraud.

The right to vote and the right to due process are two sacred foundations of the governance of our nation. But absolutism with a dash of ascendant authoritarian impulses is a cocktail that threatens to poison us all.

The presidential veto and the Supreme Court remain brakes in our unique system. Presidents must be elected and then face the people four years later, but Supreme Court justices armed with lifetime appointments stay in power until a time of their choosing or until they die. It is easy to understand why some of them can reach an arrogance close to a divine complex.

The power of Congress, like the presidency, is constantly changing. So the question for a party with slim margins in Congress is how much party discipline leaders can command. In an evenly divided Senate like the one we have today, one or two senators can hold the keys to inordinate power.

For those who understand that governing is done through ever-changing coalitions of convenience and consensus, these are bitter days.

The most mature leadership demands compromise, but for anyone willing to work with others, the extremes of the party await with a primary challenger and an army of social media gangsters to inflame emotions against them.

Absolutism disguised as “integrity” or “coherence” solves nothing and leads to constant cycles of conflict for those who derive their power from enduring conflict. Hard-line extremists getting involved in politics are a zero-sum all-or-nothing game.

And conflict sells. Thus, absolutists are addicted to social media attention which is then rewarded by partisan media. Viewers of these media drink every night from the unholy chalice of unyielding extremist ideology.

Besides ideology, absolutism even created its own set of “facts”.

I know it’s not popular to say this, but it has to be said: we are not entitled to our own “truths”, but rather we must accept the truth. Absolute certainty in someone’s “truths” gives rise to a false worldview that creates the explosive emotions that lead to events like Charlottesville in 2017 or the January 6, 2021 riot.

As a long, hot summer approaches, the all-state melee combat that can be triggered by knocking down Roe v. Wade is another fuse. This fuse is fertile ground for those who draw power from division, for those who fuel anger.

These are people who wish to challenge all the institutions we have in this country, from the government, our elections and our judicial system to our education system and our media.

They do this to create the conditions where all trust disappears. And when the trust is gone, there is no hope of sitting around the table as sisters and brothers to forge the kinds of compromises that created our founding documents, the kinds of compromises that can unite us to new.

Reject the default position of mistrust, reject the sweet siren call of constant conflict; this is the challenge of our time. And it only gets more difficult.

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