03 margaretA decade ago, the United States experienced a financial “correction” that eventually turned into the Great Recession. It affected not only our own economy but rippled across many of the world’s other developed economies. Economists continue to argue about its causes, one of which was surely the unbridled bundling and selling of mortgages destined for default, and its effects, among them getting the millennial generation off to a delayed and perhaps crippled start.

Ten years later, our economy has recovered – some would even say boomed. Psychological scars remain, however personal and private they may be, but publicly, our economy is on a roll.

What we need now is a political correction. 

American politics have always been rough and tumble, not for shrinking violets or the faint of heart. The last decade, though, has brought partisan division unlike any in our history. Talking heads chat endlessly about the very real decline in civility among leaders at all levels of government. What we hear about less often are changes in the unspoken rules of government through which one branch respects and honors the work and responsibilities of other branches.    

Americans have just witnessed the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brent Kavanaugh, a political spectacle if ever there was one. U.S. senators chewed each other out on live television – perhaps because of live television – and protestors shouted opposition as they were dragged out of the hearing room. Grandstanding was the name of the game.

Compare that to the confirmation hearings of Antonin Scalia, nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and widely regarded as among the most conservative justices ever to sit on our nation’s highest court. He was confirmed by a vote of 98-0, meaning that he was supported by both Republicans and Democrats because the U.S. Senate has historically abided by the Constitutional advise and consent authority given to presidents to appoint Supreme Court justices. Until now.

In their recent book, “How Democracies Die,” Harvard political scientists Steven Levisky and Daniel Ziblatt examine failed democracies in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s and in South America in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. They identify common threads in populist leaders who took their nations away from the balance of powers that mark democracies into autocracies, even dictatorships. In some countries, the shift was obvious, sometimes violent. In others, it was more of a slow, lazy slide that many people did not see until it slapped them in the face.

The authors refer to governmental customs and traditions within and between various branches as “guardrails,” safety features not enshrined in constitutions or in law, but very real and accepted practices that keep democratic governments operating. In the U.S., the authors assert, many factors, including presidential primary system changes in both parties in the 1970s, changing demographics that make some Americans feel like our country is leaving them behind, and highly partisan hardball politics are weakening our guardrails. As for our own state, the authors say North Carolina is now without guardrails at all – a state hijacked by intense partisanship – and much the worse for it.

The pendulum has always swung back and forth in American politics. When it goes too far in one direction – left or right, it reverses itself and heads toward center. It is now time for a political correction, just as it was time for an economic correction a decade ago. 

Many talking heads agree that correction could and should come in less than two months in the November elections. The midterms are an opportunity to say “enough” to intense and corrosive hardball partisan politics, to divisive policies and rhetoric, to incivility, and to begin repairing the guardrails that have been our safety net for more than two centuries. 

Let the healing begin.

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