I recently read a pair of articles. They’re really quite different in almost every way, but I think they both touch on the same problem.
The first is coauthored by former White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State James A. Baker III and form Ambassador-to-the-U.N. Andrew Young and is titled “Identity Politics Are Tearing American Apart.” It was an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal on August 31st, and it probably behind the paywall for you.
The article opens up lamenting the state of politics in our nation. Coming from two such eminent figures, I wanted to know their prescription for how to heal this schism. When I got towards the end of their article, though, it seems they engage in much the same political tactic that they are criticizing in the first place.
The problem is familiar. Politically, we are splintering in to factions with intractable issues dividing us. Given that we got here from what we all remember as a less trying time, it would seem like there must be a way back. We could, of course, hope simply to eliminate our opponents from the political arena. While this seems to be the preference from all side, it hardly seems likely without a much genocide and reeducation camping. The alternative would be to find what brings us together, rather than what drives us apart.
When Baker and Young finally arrive at their political solution, about midway through the article, it does not appear that they have any intention of seeking out a path to reconciliation. Instead, they’ve come up with a political program of their own; one which they deem to be just the compromise we need. I don’t know if, at this point, the particulars are that important, but their plan is to increase spending on infrastructure and civic projects, as well as to raise taxes to facilitate a reduction in corporate tax rates. Certainly there is support for just such proposals. Perhaps even broad support. But there also there are many who (for various reasons) would oppose these initiatives. Many of those opponents would be just as earnest as the authors in their desire to serve the common interest of all Americans.
In the end, I interpret the message of Mssrs. Baker and Young, juxtaposing as they have the violence and incivility in today’s politics with their own sensible plan, that in order not to be an “extremist”, you need to back their favored position. Essentially this echoes the language of the partisan actors causing those very problems that they are claiming to solve.
Are you with me, or are you with the Nazis?
Speaking of partisan actors, the second piece that got me going was some clickbait referring back to to a Huffington Post article. I’ll not link to any of it, as the clickbait site was just regurgitating another’s material and HuffPo, while original, is engaging in this behavior that is so harmful for America. The original article had the incendiary headline, Senate Candidate Was On Radio Show With Pastor Who Said Gays Should Repent Or Die, and you are free to google it if you want to see the original.
Suffice to say that the headline was more inflammatory than the article itself. The subject is the primary race in Alabama, which was forced into a two-man runoff. The more conservative of the two remaining candidates (Roy Moore) is a newcomer and underdog in the legislative race, having been a State Supreme Court justice. As part of his campaign (one presumes), he was on a Colorado talk show with a conservative pastor who has argued for a fire and brimstone interpretation of the bible, particularly with regards to homosexuals. Ted Cruz also appeared on this radio show during the presidential campaign, and was forced to scrape, bow, and apologize for the offense. In the case of the Alabama race, the senate candidate was clear he did not advocate for the execution of gays.
I came across this whole kerfuffle when a friend posted a link to the headline, and others quickly piled on with their virtue signalling about how awful this all was, and what a “scary” guy the Senate candidate is.
The problem with today’s politics is not the mere existence of personalities like the conservative, talk-show pastor. I, frankly, think he is wrong theologically, as well as being wrong to use his platform to suggest that his fellow human beings should “die.” But such people have always existed and always will, and yet civilization survives and thrives.
The problem with today’s politics is not the existence (or even the popularity) of candidates like Roy Moore. It is difficult to speak to Candidate Moore’s actual qualifications relative to his opponent as I don’t follow Alabama politics and the articles I’ve seen on the subject tend to focus on particularly provocative aspects of the race. Moore was actually removed from the Supreme Court for his defense of a “Ten Commandments” monument in the courthouse, so there is plenty there with which to provoke. The race also pits “the establishment” versus “the real conservatives” as big names in politics have taken one side or the other. For all I know, maybe I would have preferred his opponent (Moore subsequently has won the election), but I did not follow the race well enough to know. In any case, I have no indication that Moore is any different from many other conservative candidates in heavily Republican leaning parts of the country.
“Southern women like their men religious and a little mad,” as Michael Shaara put it.
Rather, it is these headlines themselves are the problem. The problem is media outlets that will turn a story into a “fightin’ words” headline. The problem is that media outlets that will only run the more provocative stories in the first place, depriving the voting public with a comprehensive overview of the election. And the problem is also the reading public who reinforces this trend by being drawn to the spectacle and influenced by the smear tactics.
To be clear, the Huffington Post dislikes Moore, not because of an association with a particular pastor, but because he is a Republican, and a very conservative one at that. They know that they share this dislike with the left-leaning half of the country. The problem is, “their people” are less than half of the electorate of Alabama. So their goal is to tarnish Moore with an extremist tag that will reduce his support from those that would otherwise be inclined to vote for him.
Understandably, accusations of genocidal tendencies, whether they be based on race or religion or sexuality or other anything, tends to raise a big red flag for any citizen. Unfortunately merely the accusation, even if ultimately unfounded, influences our perception – our motivation, and this is part of human nature. In another recent example, when organized white supremacist groups take a liking to a candidate, that association is blasted throughout the press. Donald Trump, seemingly is surviving it, but I remember the same tactic being used against Ron Paul right before his Republican presidential primary. It didn’t change anything about the candidate, but it changed the tone of the election. All the positive messaging of a candidate is sucked out of the room by the mere association with certain words and phrases.
This is where we stand today. We have realized the power of the “extremist” tag, and the ease with which it can be applied – often with the slightest of connection. But as we stare into that abyss, it also stares back at us. As we define the political landscape only by its “scary” “extremists,” that is the shape that the landscape takes.
This is not a path we should be walking.