Sunday, December 20, 2015

Our Fragile Democracy

In the wake of the Paris attacks last month, a meme scattered about social media presented a map of the United States with each state colored to represent its political leanings. As has been the custom of late, the states which have voted predominantly Republican in recent years were colored red while those preferring Democrats were blue. Leaving no doubt as to the political leanings of its creator, instead of labeling them as such, in the map's legend, the red states were labeled "The United States of America" while the blue states were labeled "Dumfuckistan."

I assured my friend who re-posted the map on Facebook that the feeing about the other side was mutual in the blue states.

I've been around a long time and can't for the life of me remember when there was so much acrimony between the right and the left in this country. The first presidential election I can recall was back in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson faced off against Barry Goldwater. The Senator from Arizona was a staunch conservative (for the time) whose hawkish stance on Vietnam and communism, and his apparent willingness to use nuclear weapons was considered by many to be extreme. That stance inspired perhaps the most controversial political ad of all time. The spot featured a little girl counting the petals she plucked off a daisy while an ominous male voice is heard in the background counting down from ten. The girl looks up into the sky as the camera zooms into her face. When the countdown reaches zero the shot of the closeup of the little girl's face dissolves into an explosion, clearly the result of a nuclear weapon. Some words follow from President Johnson including a quote from W.H. Auden: "we must love one another or die", then a voiceover admonishes the voters to: "Vote for President Johnson..." because "...the stakes are too high for you to stay home." The message was clear to TV viewers during the height of the cold war: vote for LBJ or the little daisy girl dies.

As a five year old, I was oblivious to all that, all I knew was that my parents were vehemently opposed to Goldwater. I remember walking by a huge photograph of the Republican candidate at a campaign office during the election and asking my mother if he was a bad man. No my mom said, he's not a bad man. we just don't agree with him.

It was a huge distinction that I'm afraid is lost on many of us today.

Johnson won that election by a landslide but despite campaigning as the peace candidate, he and his administration ended up escalating the Vietnam war. That war along with the struggle for civil rights tore this nation apart in the sixties. The man who replaced Johnson in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon. also promised to end the war but instead expanded it into Laos and Cambodia. Nixon who was never liked by the left, nor by much of the right for that matter, was indeed a divisive president, less so after the coverup surrounding the Watergate Hotel break in came to light. That event, more than any other I think, ushered in a wave of cynicism that has defined our relationship with politics and those we elect to run this country ever since.

An even more polarizing figure in the White House was Ronald Reagan. To the left he was a bumbling old movie actor whose views on the economy, social justice and the environment set this country back fifty years. To the right, by bringing the US out of the economic morass, stagnation and self-doubt of the seventies, Ronald Reagan did nothing less than save this country.

As divided as the left and right were during the Reagan era, things still got done in Congress, people understood that in order for a democratic republic to function, those of different opinions needed to get together and work out a compromise. The Democrats in the time of the Reagan era, perhaps at their weakest point in a century and on the brink of irrelevance. still looked upon themselves as the loyal opposition.

After twelve years of Republican hegemony in the White House and Congress, Bill Clinton became president. The first baby boomer president, Clinton's politics was largely forged out of the cynicism of the sixties and seventies and he gave back that cynicism to this country in spades. The Republicans hated him for it to the point of impeaching him over of all things, the coverup of a sex scandal. With that we became the laughing stock of the world.

The Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment of Bill Clinton in my opinion took this country to unprecedented depths of cynicism and mistrust of government, from which point we have kept diving deeper and deeper ever since. George W. Bush, seemingly a lightweight, intellectually challenged candidate, won the 2000 presidential election under dubious circumstances, and had zero support from Democrats until the fateful morning of September 11, 2001. The terrible events of that day had the potential of bringing this country together like no other since the attack on Pearl Harbor. But the Bush administration dropped the ball when under the guise of national security, they used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq, purging it of its admittedly horrific dictator Sadam Hussein, and creating a power vacuum in that country which at the very least is partially responsible for the terrible situation we find ourselves in today in that part of the world. Then in 2008 came the economic collapse, the seeds of which were planted long before, during the bullish economic optimism of the Clinton administration and beyond.

When Barack Obama was elected president in November of 2008, he inherited the uncharted territory of this nation fighting a war on two fronts combined with an economic crisis the likes of which we hadn't seen since the Great Depression.

One would think that in such a time of crisis. a newly elected president would enjoy at least the tacit support of the overwhelming majority of Americans, rooting for him to succeed in bringing the nation out of its doldrums. But that was not the case as there were Republicans who pledged from day one of the Obama administration to work tirelessly, not for the betterment of this nation, but merely to defeat Barack Obama. For whatever reason, a tidal wave of Americans agreed with them and in fact, rooted for the president to fail.

Now at the twilight of the Obama administration, the jury is still out on the efficacy of his presidency. One can only imagine that jury will be split along party lines.

Perhaps the most salient and depressing symbol we have of our political landscape at the moment is the current crop of Republican presidential candidates hoping to win their party's nomination this summer.  You have to dig deep in order to find a credible candidate in the bunch. While millions of Americans scratch their heads over how anyone in their right mind could possibly support someone like Donald Trump, millions more believe he speaks for them.

The title of a Washington Post editorial published the day after the last Republican debate in Las Vegas says it all: For Republicans, bigotry is the new normal

The editorial goes on to say that while most of the Republican candidates distance themselves from Donald Trump's rants about Muslims, Mexicans, and other minorities, that distance is less than you might imagine as a plurality of registered Republicans agree with Trump on even his most outrageous stands. It took a real whopper, Trump's idea that ALL Muslims should be barred from entering the United States to get any reaction from his fellow Republican candidates, perhaps only because that idea runs so counter to what this country is supposed to stand for, even the most ardent supporter of the strictest immigration controls, except of course Trump, had to cry foul.

Which makes you think, are these guys and one woman really as bigoted as their plattforms would lead you to believe, or are they just telling their constituents what they want to hear. No question mark needed at the end of the last sentence because no one should be the least bit surprised that candidates say all kinds of things in order to one up their opponents.

On the other side, the Democratic race lacks the side show quality of the Republican circus, but let's face it, the candidate who is the darling of the left, Bernie Sanders, much like Trump, is telling his followers exactly what they want to hear. Unlike the Republicans, I haven't the slightest doubt that Sanders is sincere about what he's telling people on the campaign trail. A dyed-in-the-wool socialist, Sanders makes no bones about telling America he believes in the re-distribution of the wealth of this country, that everyone should be assured of cradle to grave health care, a college education, and a job waiting for them when they get out, all paid for by the government. After all, if Denmark can do it, so can we. Of course what Sanders fails to mention in his vision of a utopian America modeled after Denmark is that in order to sustain their utopia, the Danes contribute about 56 percent of thier income to the government. Good luck trying to convince Americans that it would be a good idea to do the same.

The only other serious candidate on the Democratic side is Hillary Clinton who has so much baggage in her past that, save for her zealous supporters, most of the people who consider themselves likely to vote for her come November, 2016 seem to be holding their collective nose.

Not a good choice at all in my opinion on either side. If I had to predict the outcome of the upcoming election, I don't think I'm too far out of line by saying chances are pretty good that Hillary Clinton will be our next president, if only because the Bernie Sanders is too extreme and the Republican Party is in disarray. I don't think they could elect someone to the proverbial office of dog catcher on a national level these days. As someone who has voted Democrat far more often than Republican, you might think I would be happy right now, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. I believe that in order for our democracy to survive, we need at the very least, two credible parties that can freely represent differing points of view in a reasonable, logical manner, without slipping into the morass of intolerance, fear, bigotry, and sheer stupidity, which seems to be the rule of the day. There will always be special interest groups, some of them with inordinate amounts of money and power to sway elected officials this way or that, which is why I think the Supreme Court's recent ruling on campaign financing was such a disaster. In the end however, I still believe the will of the people ideally is stronger than the power of the special interest groups. In the end, we still have the ultimate say as to who gets in and who does not, if only we choose to do so.

In an address to the British House of Commons as World War II was coming to a close, Winston Churchill said this:
At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.
The problem we have is this, our political system has become so petty, ugly and mean spirited. that the majority of Americans, especially young ones, have absolutely no interest in participating. This does not bode well for our future.

Beyond participation, as I see it, a democracy needs two things in order to work, the minority needs to accept the will of the majority, while the majority needs to accept the rights of the minority. This can actually be boiled down to one essential ingredient, both sides need to respect each another, accepting that we cannot agree on everything. As my mother so wisely taught me 51 years ago, people who hold different opinions are not necessarily bad people. Chances are good that we may have more in common with the people on the other side of the fence than differences, if only we took the time to find out.

Democracy cannot succeed (at least at the moment) in a place like Iraq where people on opposite sides are mortal enemies who have no interest in accepting the will or the rights of the other side. Our leaders, including those in the current administration, are foolish to assume that democracy will naturally sweep in to fill the vacuum of vanquished tyrants. They're even more foolish to believe that democracy will actually succeed if by some chance it is introduced.

Our country seems to be headed in the direction of splitting into two separate states, one red, one blue, divided by political ideology and defined by intransigence, rather than one country strengthened and emboldened by reasonable and rational discourse.

I've lived through an era where the likelihood of the destruction of the planet was on everyone's mind because chances of it happening was not at all out of the question. I've seen cities including my own burn over racial hatred and intolerance. I have seen one president assassinated, one impeached, and another resign before he could be impeached. I've seen the nation torn apart over wars that we should not have fought, and I saw the Twin Towers collapse before my eyes, live on TV. Trust me, we've been through worse crises just in my lifetime. That doesn't include two world wars, the Great Depression, and on and on and on...

We survived those crises because somehow we managed to come together in times of trouble, mending our fences and working as one. We are a nation that has come together not because we share a nationality or religion or even an ideology. What we do share is the basic idea that our strength as Americans is our differences. It is defined by a motto written in Latin and found on the back side of our currency, "E pluribus unum", out of many, one.

Our fragile democracy above all is the glue that binds us together and makes us one, It can only survive if we learn to respect and talk to one another, and most important, to fulfill our right and responsibility as citizens by participating in government, at the very least in the electoral process. Failure to vote is not a valid form of protest, it only sends a message to the powers that be that we simply don't care. Once that is established, any form of tyranny can rule the day, and it will be nobody's fault but our own.

The closing line from that old LBJ commercial rings as true today as it did a half century ago,

The stakes are too high for you to stay home.

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