In 1860, the Democratic Party met in Charleston, S.C., to hold its national convention and select its candidate for president.
In those days, the Democrats were the conservatives and the "Black Republicans," the new party just entering the national political scene, were the radical liberals advocating significant changes to the policies of society and government.
A vocal and determined minority of Democrats at that convention opposed the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas as president. Douglas had a good chance of winning if the party would unite behind him. But his opposition (almost all from slave states), which would break away from the party and ultimately hand the presidency to Lincoln, actually hoped Douglas would lose and Lincoln would win. Not because they supported Lincoln, but because they believed -- correctly as it turned out -- that if Lincoln won it would trigger a wave of seccession across the south.
Lincoln, himself, had made it clear he did not intend to free the slaves or alter the institution of slavery (that would come later, when the Civil War was in its full-blown gory splendor).
But that vocal minority of Democrats meeting in South Carolina that year didn't want the federal system to work anymore. They wanted it to break. They didn't want to compromise on any issue. They would rather see the federal government broken than have to succumb to the will of a majority of the people of the entire nation.
The issues are different today, but in the early years of this 21st century, we are facing a similar determination by another vocal minority -- the Tea Party -- to resist any law they don't like to a point where they are willing, almost eager, to see the government broken than be forced to compromise.
As it did 150 years ago, the art of compromise, which is such an important part of our federal system, has died. It is a result of the massive polarization of politics we see occurring in our nation today, and it frightens the heck out of me.
Compromise, a movement toward the center of the political spectrum, is vital to the success of our democracy. When any significant group decides it will not compromise, and has enough votes to make it happen, then the entire system begins to break down. Legislative gridlock ensues. Debate gets deflected from the vital "nuts and bolts" issues of running the government to issues of the moment that merely eat up time, energy and good will.
"My way or the highway" does not make for effective government.
Pelosi's heavy-handed tactics did it for four years before the 2010 election and now the leaders of the Tea Party movement are doing it -- and dragging the more reasonable elements of the Republican Party with them. Intransigence is an equal opportunity empowerer. And it is guaranteed to lead our government into a failure mode that may very well destroy us.
The inability of those who lose a political battle to accept the will of the people, as expressed through their elected representatives, is a dangerous development in American politics.
I want fewer Pelosis and Reids and Bachmans and Pauls, and more Mike Simpsons and Mike Crapos -- leaders who will fight for their principals but accept that compromise toward the middle of the road is necessary for effective government.
Too many political leaders in states across the south and the intermountain basin of the west increasingly seem more interested in destroying the federal government than fixing it. Perhaps the scariest development of all is the rise of the seccessionist movement. Unable to accept the law of the land, unwilling to seek compromise, there is a growing element on the political landscape that calls for measures that would break away from the confines of federal law.
From nullification efforts to outright calls for seccession, some states, Idaho included, are trying to break the compact they made when they entered the union.
I fear not the threats from outside to the greatness of this nation, but the pernicious eroding of the sense of national self from the sectarian hardliners who have rejected the art of compromise as an instrument of political policy.
I truly believe that we must elect candidates in the 2012 election who do not hold hard-core positions, who believe in the value of a slow, deliberate development of policies based on compromise, and a more fluid definition of principals. People who want the government to work, not freeze up and break.
If we don't, we are headed down a road similar to that which resulted from the Democratic convention 150 years ago.