Perhaps the greatest casualty of this Presidential campaign has been our regard for those who think differently than we do. A contentious national election is hardly anything new in American politics, but I cannot recall one that involved so much effort being put into demonizing the opposition. Political opponents are not simply on the wrong side; they’re evil, stupid, misguided trolls who would either:
a) lead us down the path of appeasement and lavender-scented, pussy-whipped weakness, or
b) turn us into the universally hated 800 lb. gorilla because of our heavy-handed, self-absorbed determination to rule the world.
The truth is quite likely somewhere in between. Truth is neither Liberal nor Conservative, especially when it comes to politics. We all tend to look for absolutes, but the poltical arena tends to be tinged in shades of gray, what Tip O’Neill called “the art of the possible”.
Where did we go so wrong?
Among the casualties in this election season have been assorted facts, truthfulness and a certain decorum. Some would say this is only natural as Election Day nears. But that still doesn’t explain the lack of civility in everyday conversation about the presidential campaign. Nor am I talking about the nightly screamfests on cable, or the radio rants that daily clog the airwaves.
Consider this scenario. Just last week I was sitting at dinner, when a friend nearly lunged across the table at me.
I allowed as how I used to like Dick Cheney. Granted, this is a minority view, regardless of one’s politics. Attila the Hun may have been more popular than our gloom-and-doom vice president.
Still, my comment was set in the past tense, distinct from the present, and part of a larger rumination. A man long known for his calm, thoughtful approach to issues, Cheney seemed to have become fixated on the hazards of our post-9/11 world. Too much time in undisclosed locations had perhaps taken its toll.
Most startling, however, was my friend’s disbelief. Apparently, I had apparentlycrossed some invisible line and sunk into an abyss.
But here’s the rub: There was no confusion about our basic positions — my friend and I are both voting for John Kerry. I just happen to think that the opposition isn’t thoroughly evil and without redeeming qualities.
In the increasingly peevish liberal view, I had committed the sin of tolerance. Better to be angry and dismissive, it seems, which are the tones of choice this season.
Honestly, this peevishness is hardly the province of Liberals, nor is intolerance. If anything, Conservatives are every bit as dismissive, intolerant, and insufferable, and, depending on who you ask, even more so.
I respect the Conservative point of view. While I profoundly disagree with most of Conservative philosophy, there are aspects of it that I can get behind, or at the very least understand. As a whole, however, I find it to be a horribly and thoroughly self-absorbed political philosophy. Perhaps the biggest difference for me is that Liberalism is about Community, while Conservatism celebrates the primacy of the Individual. Simplistic, perhaps, but if I had to summarize the differences in one sentence, that would be the best I could do.
I know Conservatives who are solid, intelligent citizens who just happen to think differently. Many of my readers are reasonsable, open-minded sorts who just happen to think differently than I do. I have no problem with that; I’ve never pretended to have all the answers. What I do have a problem with are those Conservatives who see those of us who do not share the ideology as somehow tainted and less “American”, somehow unworthy of taking part in this grand democratic experiment. Yes, there are certainly Liberals who exhibit this sort of behavior, and I do not condone narrow-mindedness from them, either.
In less turbulent times, friends argue about various issues and agree to disagree, as the saying goes. Civility is the norm. But this election year, tolerance is no longer assumed; animus is the rule, as people mimic the incendiary tactics they see all around.
While divisiveness is nothing new in politics, this level of it even among people who basically agree — is without precedent.
Come Election Day, there may be more than a few friendships in need of repair.
It doesn’t need to be this way. I don’t know what our world will look like when we wake up on Wednesday morning. I do know that we will somehow need to find a way to get along. It’s true; in the end, all we really have is one another.