An integral theme to this year’s Washington Ireland program is the issue of Dealing With Difference, and it has struck a chord with me that having been exposed to some of the leading strata of American society in my first two weeks in DC, this fantastic nation, so often the pacifier in international relations, has deep seated internal problems that are increasingly amplified as anticipation of this November’s Presidential and Congressional Elections grows- the poisonous institution dysfunction between the Liberals and Conservatives.
For a supposedly United States it is intensely and unwaveringly divided. When the Presidential election was discussed at a hugely insightful Media Panel evening, it was noted that the vast majority of voters are so predisposed to a set of beliefs (regardless of the credentials of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama) that this election is going to come down to the 8% of allegedly independent voters. Moreover, as Bill Press stated in his book ‘The Obama Hate Machine’, presidents and presidential candidates are routinely subject to personal attacks, but for the remaining 92% of voters, in this particularly volatile climate, “the outright disdain by extremist opponents…has inspired an insidious brand of character assassination unique in contemporary politics”. At present, it would seem that the struggle to deal and overcome difference on Capitol Hill is as prevalent as in the partisan Northern Ireland Assembly.
Probably the most contentious issue in the nation outside of the economy is the imminent Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). On my first day interning in the government affairs department of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, I was invited to attend a fundraiser for candidates to Congress and at it It was fascinating to hear the viewpoint of Howard Dean, a physician and former Governor of Vermont who ran for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 Presidential election. Commenting on the polarised nature of the Supreme Court, Dean contested somewhat sensationally that “the Supreme Court has been worse for this country than 9/11”. It really heightened for me that even in the context of judicial activism an institution of such power could be so divisive. We were fortunate to have renowned political commentator E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post speak to us in our first week in DC. Also addressing this matter, he spoke of the emerging role of partisan majorities which has served to breed an ethos of political one-upmanship rather than responsible legislative decision making.
On looking for inspiration to move away from this culture, thankfully we need not look any further than our own shores. The decision of Martin McGuinness to shake hands with the Queen shows a distinctive move away from political rhetoric to decisive action. In this regard, we can take solace from the fact that despite how great our differences may be, there is greater joy in overcoming the difference. Here in DC however, a nation holds its breath.