I don’t like talking about politics, and rarely do, for the same reason I don’t like talking about religion: Too many people are too certain they are “right”, which makes everyone else’s opinions wrong. But throughout the election season I have watched my Facebook wall light up with venomous declarations of certainty and pronouncements of idiocy levied at anyone who holds a different opinion. Right wingers dismiss half of the nation as idiots intent on making America a Socialist nation, while left wingers damn half of the population as suckers who buy into lies that keep the rich rich and make everyone else poor. This divide seems to grow wider with every election, and good intentions are lost beneath fiery rhetoric and manipulated data.
Every election is purported to be an opportunity to change the direction of the country, to finally get on a real path to prosperity. But recent history reveals a frustrating pattern: The Dems win, they spend more and solve little, so the pendulum swings, the GOP wins, and they spend more and solve little, so the cycle repeats. Worse, both sides sometimes don’t even TRY to fix things, they simply promote their own ambitions and endeavor to block the opponent’s agenda. (If my daughter’s fourth-grade class had a “mock congress” that behaved the way our elected politicians do, the teacher would intervene and say, “You seem to have misunderstood the assignment. I didn’t ask you to be petulant divas, I asked you to work together to find a compromise.”)
I have a reputation in my family as being a liberal (perhaps because they are mostly conservative and have limited depth perception when they look left) but I refute any political label because such words have become tools for putting someone on a particular side of a dubious debate. I rarely hear anyone use the word “liberal” or “conservative” outside of a political context: when my colleague gives a homeless guy a buck, no one says “Nice work promoting your liberal ideals,” and no one looks at the person who didn’t give money and says, “Look at you, maintaining your conservative principles of self-reliance.” Those two words have become epithets, heavy with baggage and usually inaccurate.
But those are the key terms of our public discourse. Politics is an increasingly perverse game of revenue enhancement, with politicians arguing about gay marriage and the definition of rape while the nation buckles under $16 trillion debt. Watching the two parties is like watching a couple argue over what color to paint the kitchen while the foreclosure notice is sitting unopened in their mail pile. We have allowed our politicians to become the equivalent of reality TV stars, and in too many cases, their goal is nothing more than securing a role in next season’s show. I’m exhausted even being a witness to this spectacle, let alone a participant.
Walt Whitman, speaking as America in Song of Myself, said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” America once celebrated itself as a melting pot, but more and more, people seem to seek homogeny. Look at Ron Paul’s journey to Tampa and the RNC. Convention officials did everything they could to shut out Paul’s supporters, to silence their voices. This isn’t even partisan politics — they’re all Republicans, yet factions in the party made tremendous effort to silence other factions of the party. The irony of using decidedly un-democratic tactics as a fulcrum to hoist your candidate for a democratic election is so bald-faced that it should have been lambasted by every person at that convention, and in America. Are we to believe that silencing dissenting voices is somehow fighting the good fight? Would we praise our children if this is how they managed to get ahead in school?Our fellow citizens are not our opponents. They are not the enemy. We are all Americans, and shame on us for allowing the conversation to escalate to where we self-righteously pass judgment on another person’s patriotism. My latest favorite is posting an image of the US flag and saying “I’m not embarrassed to post this. Are you?” So you define patriotism by your own standard, then anyone who doesn’t meet your standard is a sub-par American? If I don’t do what you do, it’s presumed I’m embarrassed?
I’ll trump the flag-photo posters and remind us all of what it says in the Pledge of Allegiance: “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”* Indivisible? Are we collectively fulfilling this pledge when we declare liberals to be idiots (because all liberals are the same, just like “women” and “Latinos” and “gays” are completely homogenous demographics ) and call conservatives suckers (because anyone who doesn’t come to the same conclusions that we do is obviously a pawn to some diabolical machine?)
I believe that everyone wants to see our nation thrive, and that everyone is genuine in their expression. I applaud those who are passionate about their views and care about the future of our nation, but many have let that passion cloud their perception. If we encounter data that underscores our beliefs, it is valuable information; if it contradicts our beliefs, the data is deceptive. If a candidate espouses our values, we can forgive them for failings; if not, everything they do is deemed suspect. It calls to mind the proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” — which serves better as a proverb than a platform.
It is frustrating that the government has managed to establish itself as the only way to get things done, yet partisan bickering makes it nearly impossible to get things done. It’s frustrating that the government has its hands in absolutely everything — as a friend who emigrated from Laos once told me, “America talks a lot about freedom, but you aren’t free at all. If you want to get married, you need the government to make it legal; if you want to build a fence around your yard, you need the city’s approval; if you even want to have a yard sale to sell your old things, you have to get a permit.” We give a lot of lip service to America’s freedom while our elected officials overtly or unconsciously work to limit those freedoms every day. (Of course, it’s okay to limit freedoms on things we don’t care about — just don’t touch the things that matter to us personally.)
I am not against the the idea of the federal government: the armed forces and the interstate highway systems alone make me willing to support the concept. But we have accepted the ridiculous state of partisan politics as par for the course, and not enough people are calling it out as such. I expect better of us as citizens, and I believe we should expect more of our politicians. We should demand more from them.
But there’s the catch-22: the problem isn’t the government, it’s us. We have become increasingly selfish, intolerant, even belligerent, and anyone who benefits from discord (including political parties and political action committees and the media) takes advantage of that. We have become a nation divided, and for that, we blame the opposition, not ourselves. We sing the praises of America’s forefathers, but we don’t want to act with the strength and character and cooperation that defined them.
I have hope for America (and I’m not embarrassed to say it), but I have genuine concern that this partisan, money-fueled government is merely a reflection of a national partisan mindset. We tolerate politicians buying votes by promising government projects, we elect and re-elect candidates whose lack of understanding of the issues they oversee is demonstrated by their public statements. We have accepted that a person can win an election not on the merits of their own ideas, but because there were enough people willing to vote against their opponent.
Margaret Thatcher said, “Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” That’s analogous to my idea of America as a great nation: it’s not enough to say America is great — we have to behave with greatness. We have to stop reveling in the petty, disruptive infighting that permeates our national discourse and focus on solutions that demonstrate the legendary spirit that has defined our greatness for the last 240 years. I don’t believe those solutions will come from so-called leaders who promise to steadfastly promote a particular agenda when they get to Congress. “I will not compromise” shouldn’t be seen as a strength, it should be questioned as a failing of one’s flexibility.
Ever heard the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last game”? It means that no matter what you’re history, your reputation depends on what you do today. America has a rich and storied history, one that warrants a claim to greatness. But we can’t simply stand on the shoulders of giants — we need to continue to be great. And being great as a nation requires being great as individuals, committed to the ideas and ideals upon which this nation was founded.
Let’s start with one word: Indivisible.
Think we can do that?
* quoting the original pledge, as “under god” was added 62 years after it was written and I’d rather talk about us than god for the moment