There should be little doubt in anyone’s mind that America is experiencing one of the most yawning partisan divides in modern history. According to a Pew study conducted last year, Americans view members of the opposing party and their voters with more anger, fear, and contempt since the study’s inception 25 years ago. One need only look at the disfunction and animosity in Congress to see what rabid partisanship does to a governmental body.
The problem is that, to win primary elections, potential Congressmen and Congresswomen must appeal to their bases, which have become increasingly polarized. In doing so, they espouse views and make promises that are viewed by the opposing party as being misguided at best and malicious at worst. Government either functions poorly or cannot function at all when compromise becomes a dirty word and elected officials believe their colleagues across the aisle might secretly hate the country.
For a long time, Georgia resisted the allure of extremist party politics. Republican Governor Nathan Deal is a prime example of that – he is a former Democrat who has backed away from far-right ideas and legislation while simultaneously championing issues like criminal justice reform. He managed to get through a primary eight years ago without scapegoating immigrants, minorities, or the poor.
Unfortunately, that type of common sense, middle-of-the-road Republican does not seem to be present in the current crop of Republican candidates. Just last weekend, all four of the major GOP candidates pledged to support so-called “religious liberty” legislation. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has maintained a presence at the Gold Dome in one form or another for years. It is designed to discriminate against the LGBT community under the guide of religious freedom, a clear fact given the repeated refusal of the bills’ sponsors and supporters to include anti-discrimination language.
However, when the bill passed through the legislature last year, Governor Deal had the good sense to veto it. Having helped make Georgia one of the best states in the country to do business, he did not want to see the state suffer from the mass withdrawal of businesses that would have occurred should he have signed it. He put the well-being of the state above the misguided satisfaction of the fringes of his party’s base. With a GOP primary that is already a race to the right, Georgia may not be so lucky in 2019 should a Republican be elected governor.
Fortunately, there are two eminently qualified individuals running on the Democratic side. The two are pursuing different strategies, with Representative Stacey Abrams choosing to embrace what might be described as “far-left” politics and policies. Calling for the removal of the Confederate carving on the side of Stone Mountain, for example, was a bold choice, one which could serve her well in the Democratic primary. But in the general election? Political anathema. Though devout supporters of the Confederacy and its symbols are unlikely to turn out for Democrats, that proclamation will no doubt be used to drive Republican turnout on Election Day. Removing the carving may be a good idea and the right thing to do, but it may or may not be a helpful issue to champion past May 22, 2018.
There’s no easy prescription for fixing extreme partisanship, and having President Donald Trump in the White House certainly doesn’t set an example of good governance. However, if we want Georgia to continue being a state known for its great business environment and visionary policies like the HOPE Scholarship, we must tone down the rhetoric.
We must listen to the other side. Running for just a core group of voters may make for good politics, but it makes for bad policy and ineffective government. I believe Georgia is better than that, and I hope all of our gubernatorial candidates do too.
Tharon Johnson is a consultant with Paramount Consulting Group and a Democrat strategist.