The Unfortunate and Extremely High Cost of Bi-Partisanship in American Politics

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) makes speech on Senate floor last week.

Commentary

Published July 30, 2017

Early Friday, in a stunning rebuke of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer, and even President Trump, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) voted against the GOP proposed “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act. His was the deciding vote, joining 2 other Republican Senators and all 48 Democrats in opposition to the bill. Some were surprised by his vote, but anyone who listened to his speech on Monday, when he returned from receiving cancer treatment to make an impassioned plea from the Senate floor for bi-partisanship, had some inkling of his intentions.

“The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries. That principled mindset, and the service of our predecessors who possessed it, come to mind when I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body. I’m not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.”

He went on to say,

“But they (our Senate deliberations) are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember.”

He even included himself in the rebuke,

“Both sides have let this happen…We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly, I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason.”

It was a stunning speech that earned him a standing ovation which extended across the aisle.

Unfortunately, towards the end of his speech, after he rebuked both Democrats and Republicans, and after he made his impassioned plea for bi-partisanship, he laid out what he believed their cooperation could be built on, American Exceptionalism.

“We are the servants of a great nation, ‘a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’

Senator McCain was of course referring to the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, which boldly states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

However, he failed to mention that a mere 30 lines below those iconic words, the Declaration of Independence refers to natives as “merciless Indian savages”, making it abundantly clear that the only reason the founding fathers used the inclusive term “all men” was because they had a very narrow definition of who was actually human. But instead of acknowledging that bleak part of the Declaration and the resulting black eye on our history, Senator McCain, who was building his theme of American exceptionalism, went even further.

“America has made a greater contribution than any other nation to an international order that has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have been the greatest example, the greatest supporter and the greatest defender of that order.”

I am quite sure that many African Americans and other people of color, both descendants of, and current victims to, America’s long-standing institution of slavery could raise legitimate exception to Senator McCain’s claim of America’s commitment to liberty. And yes, I did say ‘current victims of slavery.’ Because contrary to what most Americans believe, the 13th Amendment did not actually abolish the institution of slavery.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery, it merely redefined and codified it under the jurisdiction of our criminal justice system. And it should not surprise anyone that the United states incarcerates our citizens at the highest rate of any country in the world. And we incarcerate people of color at a rate 3 times higher than that of white citizens.

But Senator McCain did not mention this travesty. He was too busy developing his theme of bi-partisanship, which required, instead of acknowledging the deep, systemic injustices of our nation, that he continue building his case for American Exceptionalism.

“We aren’t afraid. We don’t covet other people’s land and wealth. We don’t hide behind walls. We breach them. We are a blessing to humanity.”

Really???

From the years 1839 to 1898, the US Congress awarded 425 Congressional Medals of Honor to US soldiers who participated in the Indian Wars. This included 20 medals of honor given to US soldiers who participated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee, a massacre where approximately 300 Lakota men, women and children  were slaughtered in a single day. During the period of the 19th century, nearly 30 states were added to the Union. The non-native population, a majority of which were white, ballooned from just over 5 million to well over 75 million. Meanwhile the Native population shrank from 600,000 to just under 250,000.

It was during the 19th century that Congress passed, and President Andrew Jackson enacted, the Indian Removal Act resulting in the Trail of Tears, the Long Walk and nearly a dozen other forced re-locations. The Massacre at Sand Creek took place, Indian Boarding schools were instituted, the hanging of the Dakota 38, the Dawes Acts. The list of atrocities of the 19th century goes on and on as the United States of America fulfilled its self-proclaimed Manifest Destiny by ethnically cleansing this land from ‘Sea to Shining Sea.’

But Senator McCain knows this history. He represents the state of Arizona which is home to over 300,000 American Indians. An article in the UK in 2013 referenced a 1996 letter by Senator McCain, where he argued against rescinding the Medals of Honor given to US soldiers who participated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Senator McCain represents Native people who, to this day, are suffering from the Historical Trauma caused by the coveting and ethnic cleansing of our lands by the United States of America.

So why would he say these words?

Because American Exceptionalism is the single most unifying theme in our country, not only for the dominant white culture, but also for many segments of our minority populations. And the theme of American Exceptionalism is utilized by politicians nearly every time they want to build bi-partisan consensus.

This is not helpful and is evidence of the poor job we do of teaching the true history of our country. Much of American history, while it may be great for white land-owning men, has been a nightmare for indigenous tribes, people of African descent, women, and countless other minorities who have had to fight the American government and the white male majority, tooth and nail, for every ounce of liberty and freedom that we partially enjoy.  Instead of building bi-partisan consensus on the mythology of American Exceptionalism, we should instead work to increase our unity by creating what George Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader from Canada, refers to as common memory.

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” (- Georges Erasmus, Dene Nation of Canada)

Mark Charles

Our country is in great need of a common memory that is accurate and honest. A memory that appreciates our accomplishments but also acknowledging when and where we frequently fall short.

Can we stop talking about when we were great and how soon we might be great again, and instead focus on working to build a nation where ‘We the People’ actually means ‘All the People’? The prior requires the continued oppression of minorities, while the latter challenges us to learn how to both acknowledge, and learn from, the injustices of our past.

Senator McCain was partially right and I appreciate his willingness to stand with Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) as the only GOP Senators to vote against the “Skinny Repeal.” The US Senate does need more cooperation. Our country needs more constructive discussion on difficult topics. We need rigorous political debate. But I would add that, more importantly, we need common memory. Because without common memory, there is an unfortunate, extremely high, and even oppressive cost to our bi-partisanship.

Mark Charles (Navajo) serves as the Washington DC correspondent for Native News Online and is the author of the popular blog “Reflections from the Hogan.” His writings are regularly published by Native News Online in a column titled “A Native Perspective” which addresses news directly affecting Indian Country as well as offering a Native perspective on national and global news stories. Mark is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram .

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