Over the holiday season I attended many a festive gathering. It was pleasant to see friends and partake in social interactions – provided one was careful not to touch the “third rail” of religion or politics. At one gathering, several revelers ignored this proviso and political tempers flared. It made me think of times past.
I remember a time when we could discuss current issues with friends and neighbors. Of course, we didn't always agree, but we were able to talk openly and calmly about them. You didn’t strain to win your point at the expense of civility; instead, you sought enlightenment through honest discourse.
Most of us, me included, tended to lean in favor of traditional conservative positions, such as lower taxes, balanced budgets, free market capitalism and strong alliances. We normally opposed severe gun restrictions, excessive immigration – especially illegal immigration and liberal social issues, such as abortion, entitlement programs and drug legalization.
Most of my conservative brethren knew where they stood but were willing to hear arguments in favor of more progressive policies. I am still willing to have those conversations, but many of my conservative friends – not so much.
Alarmingly, many conservatives have descended so far into partisanship that they turn a blind eye to constitutional infringement in favor of service to party. Oh, to be fair, a few become a little squeamish upon occasion, but most have become entrenched in the view that any political means is justified by the end.
Extreme partisanship, however, is not only a conservative transgression; it is also practiced by liberals. They have their own list of hot button issues – entitlement programs, climate change, labor unions, citizenship for illegal immigrants or more government regulations. They, like conservatives, can be very vociferous.
In truth, illiberalism encompasses both of today’s political parties and is closing off our previously open society.
Party partisanship on both sides of the aisle is nothing new in American politics. It has always been prevalent from our nation’s inception as a means of generating political power.
But, starting in the mid-1990s, it reached new heights as both political parties began to fully realize the advantage of creating a subservient power base where the party line was hypnotically towed.
Every manner of political chicanery was shrugged off merely by saying, “… the other side is so much worse.” And, often they would leave out the first part of that sentence, “I know it’s wrong, but …”
The result of this hyper-partisanship was the devolution of our political system of compromise and civility. It also radicalized the fringe elements of both parties and opened a chasm so wide that few could cross it without risking personal political destruction.
When I saw this polarization taking hold, I found it upsetting; inflexible partisanship was paralyzing our democracy and destroying our open society. And, most disconcerting of all, it sewed discord between families and friends.
That was then, and this is now.
Regrettably, the now is more of the same. Emerging populist leaders play to our fears and prejudices; they play to the worst of our inclinations.
Oddly enough, today’s political wannabes were not the first to recognize the worst in us. Our Founding Fathers saw it as well. They were pragmatic and wise enough to see the excesses that could be brought about by unbridled power.
They feared political imbalance and were distrustful of our baser instincts. And, in order to protect us from ourselves, they created a Constitution with elaborate safeguards. They established a system of “checks and balances” and reaffirmed the concepts of “due process” and “the rule of law.”
But, in addition to seeing the worst in us, they also saw the possibility of the best. They saw what we could become.
And to nurture the best in us, they gave us guiding principles that were based upon our shared values. If you read our founding documents, you will see them. And, if you apply them honestly, the path they laid out will appear to you.
As we go forward, our first task should be to look back – to look back to our founding principles and values. They need to be reaffirmed, and we must reestablish ourselves as a civil society.
We need to be honest with ourselves. We have to seek the truth no matter how inconvenient and find comfort in understanding.
And, finally, we need to reach reconciliation with our fellow Americans. We are a diverse society with diverse opinions and points of view. But, that is not our weakness; it is our strength for it opens up a world of new possibilities and growth as a society.
We may stumble along the way. We may become temporarily lost. And, that is OK. Remember, our founders never promised us an easy journey; they knew it would be ongoing, challenging and testing us to the core. Yet, they also knew the journey would be worthwhile.
The poet, Robert Browning, had it right, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for.”
Well, we probably can’t create a political heaven on earth, but it shouldn’t be for the lack of trying.