This week we voted. Not really. Washington State now has mail in- ballots, so the sense of community action is lost—among other things. I found the picture above, labeled, “Presidential Election, 2016,” in the midst of hundreds exploding in the red, white, and blue celebration of the day. Grim and gray, it expressed my feelings about the state of politics today–what we’ve come to. Now the election is over. Can we hope for something different?
Once upon a time, I went to a college that believed exposure to contrary opinions was a necessary step to adulthood and citizenship. Starting with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, we read the debates that shaped the nation. Nothing was more basic to American citizenship than debate. After Obama’s election in 2004, at a Democrat meeting, I suggested talking with local Republicans, but the idea bombed. They confessed they didn’t know how to talk to them about politics. Last week, a column in our local paper asks readers how long it had been since they exposed themselves to any opinion that did not agree with theirs. Where did it go? When did we start treating each other as enemies instead of opponents?
For me, it began when President Truman proposed National Health Care (no, not Obamacare) and my classmates called me a “commie” because my father, a physician, was on salary, not in private practice. I was twelve. I was seventeen when Senator Joe McCarthy sent his investigators to campus because the University of Chicago refused to make its faculty sign loyalty oaths and because we studied the Communist Manifesto. Reading it made us traitors.
It’s all in the language and language shapes the way we think. If “opponent” becomes “enemy,” disagreement becomes a “threat to our way of life,” agreeing with the opponent about anything becomes “selling out,” Closing your mind to all ideas other than those of your group becomes “loyalty,” “sticking to your guns,” “standing up for principals.”
When the Sixties came along, the Left picked up the war lingo they’d inherited. They talked of “revolution,” declared “war” on the establishment, and anyone liberal whose ideas differed in any way became “patsies of the establishment,” or “sellouts.”
Those were tumultuous times, filled with violence and multiple assassinations. Again language was inflamed—the glory of battle on the one hand, the fear of disintegration on the other. We survived changed. Split by fear and anger created in large part by our own inflammatory rhetoric. In the universities where I taught, there was no debate between theories of politics or anything else. One school supported one theory and another another. Those crossing the line were stigmatized and isolated. On both left and right solidifying of opinion became “unifying,” silencing the middle—“wishy-washy patsies” who don’t know their own mind.
To me, as a Democrat, this change in university life was bitter. I’d been active in politics before the Sixties, working for candidates, even running campaigns, but found myself silenced because I held view other liberals deemed “incorrect.” My heritage—both family and schooling—has taught me to doubt anyone who claimed their views were Truth. But the Sixties had left liberals in closed ranks and for me closed ranks make closed minds.
We blame Washington for it all, but let’s face it, the language of war is exciting, the glory of battle exhilarating, unifying, powerful. Our politicians tell us what we want to hear, and we’ve used the rhetoric of war rather than the language of debate for so long we’ve forgotten what talking with an opponent, much less, opening our minds to another way of thinking is like. Almost seventy years have passed since that schoolmate called me a “commie,” and every year exchanges debate disintegrate further into name-calling. Perhaps we’ve gotten what we deserve. Closed-minded rants that cycle over and over in their own little world until the rest of us clap our hands over our ears and stick our heads in the sand.
We need James Madison—the man who brought bitter factions together sufficiently to give us a Constitution. He wasn’t on the ballot, but the talk on the media was all about “working together,” and everything I’ve read about the mood of the nation tells me we are all sick of the battle that goes nowhere. Let us hope his brains, talent, and perspective will appear in the new group that leads the nation. And let’s hope the people will rediscover their citizenship.