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You have to wonder: In these days of deep political divide, how wise is it to let opposing politicians stand together near a weapon?
That’s what Delaware does after every election. It’s the tradition of Return Day, and the weapon in question is a hatchet buried by the opposing sides in a representation of the old metaphor.
Democratic and Republican politicians from the governor to U.S. senators to local town council members gather for a parade, feast and speeches, riding in carriages together in a demonstration of goodwill.
It’s not a sign of affection but at least a token of willingness to work together for the good of the state and a reminder that, though they’re opponents, they don’t have to be enemies.
“It means, kind of, the essence of how politics should be,” said Republican state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, who represents the Georgetown area. It’s “the beginning of us as elected officials actually getting to work for the people that elected us. And to put the partisanship aside.”
That’s the idea anyway.
This year, a note of discord has crept in. The Delaware Democratic Party Executive Committee has called on its candidates not to ride in some of the carriages used in the parade. The antique vehicles come from the Nutter D. Marvel Carriage Museum, which has been criticized for continuing to fly a Confederate battle flag above a memorial to Delaware soldiers who fought on the southern side in the Civil War.
Some say the Democrats’ action runs counter to the spirit of the event, while others emphasize that people of both parties are taking a stand against the flag, while still enthusiastically participating in Return Day.
The polarization of political rhetoric has swung back toward the extreme side in recent years.
“Our politics really started to become a blood sport in the early ’90s after the Clinton election,” said Niklas Robinson, an associate professor of history at Delaware State University. He also mentioned the 1994 midterm elections, when Newt Gingrich launched a national rallying cry for the GOP with new political strategies and more disciplined messaging.
In the past, major events like World War II have brought people together, albeit imperfectly, Robinson said. But the most recent crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, drove people further apart.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing that increase (in polarization) in Delaware, as well,” Sen. Pettyjohn said. “You’re starting to see those divisive issues come into more of the local politics, where it shouldn’t be. And it’s taking the focus off of these races where there’s … very important local issues to be discussed.”
Marilyn Booker, president of the Sussex County Republican Party, recalled the days after 9/11 when members of both parties gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and spoke in a unified voice. Today, “I don’t know that we would come together if we had some type of a tragedy like that.”
Is polarization always bad?
“It’s become increasingly clear that there are certain things that people don’t want to compromise on,” said Travis Williams, executive director of the Delaware Democratic Party. “And if the Confederate flag is one of those things … acknowledging the humanity of certain members of the community, that’s not something I’m willing to compromise on.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, the organization behind the flag and memorial, sent a written statement to the town of Georgetown earlier this year, decrying “an ugly ‘cancel culture’” and “modern day bullies,” and quoting civil rights activists who they say had no problem with the flag.
When it comes to civil rights, conflict was instrumental. Robinson noted that hundreds of thousands of people died in the Civil War, and thousands of African Americans were lynched in the more modern civil rights movement.
Polarization and division are not necessarily the same.
“Division is natural, right, and that’s instrumental to any sort of vibrant, healthy, democratic dialogue between different groups,” Robinson said.
Polarization has come to mean extremism. It’s “the digging in of heels and refusing to be moved by any sort of counterargument,” Robinson said. The polarized extremes “really play on people’s emotions and fears, as opposed to motivating people to think and learn.”
“That is the way we believe from one side to the other,” said Carlos de los Ramos, chairman of the Delaware Hispanic Commission. “Republicans take over, they’re going to destroy this; Democrats are going to take over, they’re going to destroy, so we vote party lines.”
From that vantage point, it’s logical to see opponents as bad actors who can’t be trusted. And what makes it tricky is that behind the rhetoric, there really are bad actors and people have to sort out politically motivated exaggeration from the truth.
“It’s difficult to compromise with folks who are not coming to the table in good faith,” Williams said. A significant portion of the GOP doesn’t want to do that, he said, referring to those who don’t acknowledge the results of the 2020 election.
“We are all Americans, all Delawareans. We’ve got to come together,” Williams said. “But if we are being asked to compromise with folks who don’t want to compromise, frankly, or are trying to break the system, then I’d have a hard time coming back to the table with those folks.”
If you disagree on a host of major issues and don’t share common goals, it’s easier to hate people on the other side and view them as dangerous enemies, Klein said. THat makes every election feel like a must-win crisis.
“Unfortunately, that divide between political points of view are really taking over our homes, our daily lives … because you have an R or a D on your chest, (and) that’s why I don’t like you anymore,” de los Ramos said. “And so that needs to change.”
What’s causing it?
Ask why our divisions are becoming more extreme, and some common themes quickly emerge, centered on how and why we get our information.
Interest groups pour an incredible amount of money into American politics, Robinson said, with billions of dollars being spent on the upcoming midterm elections alone.
Division is fed by disinformation, like wild conspiracy theories, and by ready access to news that supports a particular point of view. “We have media outlets that are either really far to the right, in the case of Fox News, or really quite far to the left like MSNBC and the Huffington Post,” he said.
Robinson referred to wild conspiracy theories like those from QAnon that circulate on social media and also the huge impact these platforms have had on politics. “When you have the ability to just throw out a tweet or a Facebook post, and it goes to hundreds of millions of people in an instant, it’s just uncharted territory.”
“I don’t know how you change that culture, to have people engage in proper face-to-face discussions,” Robinson said. “In 50 years, 100 years, people will look at this moment — moments — and wonder what the hell people were thinking.”
Finding common ground despite real differences
Look closer at the dispute over Return Day, and you’ll find that it doesn’t fit neat partisan boundaries.
Georgetown resident Tom Marvel recently penned an opinion piece about his grandfather, Nutter Marvel, whose estate formed the basis of the Marvel Carriage Museum at the center of the flag controversy. He was concerned that some might not know who his grandfather was and would associate his name with the Confederate flag.
Marvel is strongly opposed to seeing the flag displayed at the museum that bears his family name, and he says other members of the family agree. It’s a symbol of slavery and flies in the face of the Black community in Sussex County, he said.
As to candidates refusing to ride in the carriages, he said, “it’s very disappointing, but I can see their point if that’s their belief.”
While it’s the Democratic Party calling on candidates not to ride in the carriages, Marvel, a Republican, is criticizing both sides. Georgetown Mayor Bill West, also a Republican, told the Daily Beast that he will walk instead of ride in the carriages this year.
Another prominent Sussex Republican, County Councilman Mark Schaeffer, blasted the flag display, saying it had no historical value and was a celebration of “the treasonous and racist Confederate movement,” the Cape Gazette reported.
Amid the strong feelings, there can still be conversation.
Joe Lawson, a member of the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, spoke of his “conservative buddies,” some of whom disagree with him about the Confederate flag. He likes and respects them anyway. They try to convince each other, but they know “we care about America, we care about other people. And even if we disagree, we can see that.”
Marvel recalled running into an old school friend at a convenience store recently, who said he didn’t understand Marvel’s stance on the flag because, the friend said, the Confederate flag is not about slavery. The war, his friend contended, was about states’ rights. Marvel strongly disagreed, but said, “You have your opinion. I’m not going to try to change it.”
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