Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Plea for a More Civil Political Discourse

I get a lot of forwarded e-mail letters and articles from friends and acquaintances. Many of these are, shall we say, unfavorable toward our new President and his administration.

Over the decades, I have learned that jokes and opinions adverse to sitting Presidents are quite normal. But, in the last couple of decades, I have noticed two things that disturb me greatly.

One is the vitriol, the sheer unadulterated defamation, in lots of the recent material that I have seen. This is clear evidence of a hatred that is poisoning our collective political life, and that is dangerous.

The other disturbing trend is that this hate campaign has been directed not just at the current sitting President, but at his party even when it was not in power. This tells me a lot about the very negative thinking of those who actually produce this stuff.

I am not a Democrat. Nor am I a Republican. Over the years, both parties have advanced proposals that I have liked, and other proposals that I have detested. Over the years, I have picked and chosen candidates whom I felt would do good things for America, regardless of their party. In my opinion, that is what all Americans should do.

Now, over the last several decades, I did tend to vote for more Republican ideas than Democrats, because those ideas back then were generally more moderate: a more moderate size of government, moderation in spending, etc. This was actually a very centrist position, by today’s standards. I like centrist stuff. It is usually the least intrusive, least harmful.

The problem is, today’s GOP is not the party of moderation anymore. The last traditional Republican (moderate-politics) President I can remember was Eisenhower. In recent decades, the closest thing I saw to that moderate ideal was Bill Clinton, the Democrat! In much of what he did, he was closer to the mold of the moderate Republicans of old. He balanced the budget, reformed some welfare into workfare, and he did not start any wars. This was entirely unlike Reagan, Bush 41, or Bush 43, all Republicans.

The departure of Arlen Specter from the GOP is a very public example of something that has been going on since before Reagan. The “power base” of the GOP was once politically-moderate folk of a strong connection to big business, just as the “power base” of the Democrats were the politically-moderate folk of a stronger connection to organized labor. Both parties had their extremists: the GOP included some very “right-wing” extremists, while the Democrats had both right wing extremists (“Southern conservatives”) and the “far left liberals”.

The makeup of the Democrats is still mostly unchanged: a moderate core and lots of fringe wackos on the left, although they lost most of the Southern conservative extremists to the GOP.

In contrast, the “power base” of the GOP shifted sharply to the extremist conservatives, plus what amounts to some very intolerant Christian religious extremists (the so-called “evangelicals”). After that shift, the party essentially began purging itself of moderates, such as Specter. That is why fewer and fewer people identify themselves as Republicans in the polls any more.

Unless the GOP becomes less extremist and more inclusive, or unless a new party espousing moderation arises, then I think that the best hope of obtaining moderate politics and policies now lies with the Democrats, at least for the next few years. Yet, one of the reasons I voted for more Republicans than Democrats over the previous decades was a tendency of the Democrats to get taken-over by their own “left-wing liberal” membership, just about election campaign time. That still happens.

Even so, I am pleased with the selection of Mr. Obama by the Democrats, and that he won the election. Obama and McCain were both moderates within their parties, both “centrist” politicians. These two men were closer to each other in their politics than either was to his party’s “base”. I simply think that the polyglot political baggage of the Democrats is less harmful to us right now, than the right-wing extremist baggage of the GOP. It’s a lesser-of-two-evils thing.

That brings me back to the vitriolic and defaming email forwards. These were directed at the Democrats all through the presidency of Bush 43, and were particularly mean-spirited about Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton during the long campaign for the last election. A lot of these were “photo-shopped” images or “testimonials” depicting Obama as unpatriotic and un-American. Some of it was quite clumsy and easily spotted for what it was. After a while, even the jokes are no longer funny. This stuff is still being produced and circulated.

The latest egregious example is a careful quoting-out-of-context of Mr. Obama, who said “America is not a Christian country”, with the implication that we are not religious at all. The full text actually says “not a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim country”. The full meaning, in proper context, is that this country is not just one of these, but all of these, and much more besides. His meaning is entirely positive, and very inclusive, even of those who do not believe. It certainly includes all Christians, and not just those who pass the “litmus tests” for the extremist Christian religious right.

The election is over. We are being tested by multiple emergencies that transcend all politics. We desperately need our President to succeed, no matter who he is. This continuing campaign of political hatred actually endangers America.

It has to stop.

I submit to you all that Barry Goldwater was wrong back in 1964 when he said that “extremism … was no vice”. It is a terrible vice. And it is a potent danger, whether in politics or religion. After all, it is extremist religious fanatics that we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. That they are Muslim matters not. It is the extremism, not the brand of religion, that drives them to do Satan’s work for him: to kill others for God.

As LBJ once said “come let us reason together”; and let’s do it in the moderate center of our political and religious lives.

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