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What’s Wrong with American Politics?

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The moral absolute should be: if and when, in any dispute, one side initiates the use of physical force, that side is wrong–and no consideration or discussion of the issues is necessary or appropriate.

Ayn Rand

As 2015 launches with a Republican Congress, I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to participate constructively in the discussion of political issues. It’s tempting to go into the attack mode that has dominated over the last six years, but it’s not working. Time to rethink. In that light, I’m going to backtrack into personal detail that illustrates the challenge as I see it.

One good thing about being an elder is that you have such a long view of history. My roots are Southern, and when my family moved to El Paso when we were children, the political orientation remained Republican. I don’t remember a lot of discussion about politics until I was 15 and John F. Kennedy was running for president. Do you remember the fear that the Vatican would end up controlling the country?

In general, however, it seemed that politeness required one to avoid discussion of both religion and politics. That is my memory; perhaps yours differs.

My father died unexpectedly the year after Kennedy was elected. I and my siblings headed into the troubled sixties with heads down, focused on our studies and getting those degrees so we could get out into the world and work. Even though I went to college in California, supposedly the breeding ground of liberals, I never got interested in the “flower children,” marijuana, or anti-war protests. I didn’t even pay much attention to the Beatles. As time went on, I didn’t tap into feminist or civil rights activism either. A boring young, unignited person.

In fact, I didn’t really tune into political issues until I was about age 26 and began working on Capitol Hill. I went through the Watergate scandal but wasn’t deeply engaged. I had probably voted for Richard Nixon, but he wasn’t a likable guy, and I wasn’t heavily invested in party ideology. If asked, I probably would have said that Republicans supported opportunity for all through the free enterprise system. Nice.

By 1980 I was back in Texas and volunteering in the unsuccessful campaign of George H.W. Bush for the presidential nomination. He was highly qualified and moderate, and I was comfortable with that. It wasn’t until 1984 that I began to pick up on the Republican Party’s movement to the far right, which was clearly politically opportunistic. That was when a new and very strident voice began to emerge, and it was off-putting for several reasons:

1) In its embrace of the religious right and an anti-abortion stance, the Republican Party seemed to be framing itself as the more moral of the two.

2) Along with that came the attitude that anyone who differed with Republican ideology was walking in error and needed to be redeemed.

3) This led to a new missionary zeal within the ranks of the party to instruct, enlighten, and conscript.

negotiate

As my estrangement from the party deepened, I gained additional perspective from living in other states–Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, and ultimately New Mexico. Everywhere I went, I made friends based on the usual compatibilities. In the new political environment, however, I was quick to discern a conservative orientation that precluded discussing politics. The Republican psyche had become so aggressive that there was no room for compromise.

Because I was concerned about environmental issues, I had become disenchanted with President Bush when he backed off of cutting emissions as promised during his campaign, and I was skeptical of the war against Iraq from the beginning. I jumped parties to vote for John Kerry in 2004 and then Barack Obama in 2008.

As polarization deepened, political labeling had also begun to change. Now people were more commonly defined as liberal or conservative, and the labels were freighted with new negativity.

I was now termed a liberal, and that was associated with tree hugging and taking money from hard-working people to give it to deadbeats and regulators. The word conservative had morphed into the image of paranoid Bible- and Constitution-thumpers who believed in arming up against–what? Change that was happening too fast?

As political conflict deepened, eventually my need to self-censor in order to maintain friendships and family relationships became too much for me. There were moments when I became furious over email exchanges and went into battle with my own lacerating tongue. That was even fun at times, but maybe we are all beginning to realize that we can no longer afford this if our democracy is to survive.

So my commitment of the moment is to find commonalities across the divide that can produce civil conversation and solutions. I’m not a great admirer of Ayn Rand, but I think one can extrapolate an important point from the quote with which I began. When either or both parties get to the point of demanding absolute submission to extreme ideology, that is as much an abuse of power as physical assault. And that, as Ayn Rand points out, is wrong.

Now on with it. And may the most pragmatic, the most skillfully diplomatic, and the most respectful of the legitimate concerns of others begin to emerge as the leaders of a new era.

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