Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Politics of Bullying

We have become a nation where bullying not only is too common in school hallways and playgrounds but in our politics and public meetings.

As we saw in the Congressional town halls of 2010 those angered by the lies being spread about the health care reform bill were loud, rude and nasty to elected officials and other citizens.  There was no evidence of respect for the office of the persons conducting the meeting and no civility toward neighbors who were present and perhaps on the other side of the issue.  Instead there was simply an attempt to loudly bully those in attendance to either join in harassing the elected official or keep silent.

And that continues today. While once was considered standard at a political rally or a peaceful demonstration to cheer,  jeer and exhibit enthusiasm is now common at community governmental meetings to shout, scream and accuse elected officials of lying. This reached the extreme when a Congressman shouted at the President during the State of Union address “You Lie”.  Citizens shout at their local officials until they do what the citizens want.  We were a nation whose body politic was formed around the concept of representative democracy.  People voted in elections and accepted the results of the election.  If those who won did not perform to the expectations of the majority they were ousted in the next elections.

Today as soon as the ballots are counted the losing side declares the winners illegitimate.  The losers than practice the art made famous by former Speaker Gingrich in 1995 - the politics of personal destruction.  Rather than debate an idea the losing side demonizes and seeks to personally defame and destroy the individual who represents that idea or party.  Epithets are tossed around and accusations with no basis in fact are issued like dogma.  Some of the charges are a distortion of an underlying fact but most are simply made up.  And, if the attacked party attempts to reason with their attacker they can’t because anything they say in their own defense is twisted and used against them.  When the shouter claims the sky is green and the elected official says no it’s blue the attacker responds you know it’s black when there’s a storm.  You cannot reason with irrational people; you cannot present facts to those who refuse to understand them. As the Bible says none are as blind as those who will not see.

The result of this bullying politics is to drive good people out.  Those who will not fight fire with fire stay home - they may vote but that’s the last time they are heard.  They will not seek or accept office because understandably they don’t want to make themselves the targets of the bullies.   When the Communists took power in Russia in 1917 and when the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933 it was through the tactics of bullying.  They silenced the opposition using force when verbal bullying failed.

One of the many reasons I support the people of Wisconsin in their effort to recall Governor Walker is to show people that there is another way.  Vote those you disagree wit out.  We need more recall provisions in our various state laws and we need more states with initiative and referendum.  We also need term limits for legislative officials.  But with those reforms must come a societal acceptance of the results of the elections.  Let those elected show their stuff and then let the electorate take the appropriate actions to replace them if they wish to.

If we no longer accept the legitimacy of our elections - and the right wing efforts to suppress voting by enacting photo id laws and reducing the number of polling places and restricting absentee voting will only increase the seeming illegitimacy of the election results - we will soon lose the right to hold elections.  If we don’t adopt a constitutional amendment to require full transparency and total disclosure of campaign contributions and limit the size of personal and corporate contributions our democracy will become an oligarchy of the very rich.  And we will find that when Patrick Henry cried “Give me Liberty or give me death” he never assumed that two hundred years later we might get neither.

22 January 2012   

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Our Political System isn’t Working !

The founders in the 1770's-80's saw America as a new model of how people could rule themselves.  It was, they believed, the first attempt at a republican form of government since the city states of Greece and the ancient Roman Republic.  In fact many feared that the 13 state 3 million people nation would be too big to govern itself effectively.

The USA soon became a symbol to those in Latin America and Europe who wanted to defeat absolutism and monarchism.  America became the example around which Bolivar and the South Americans rallied as they won their independence from Spain; the French revolted to overthrow the monarchy and in the 1840's many in central Europe began democratic revolutions (that failed).  By the end of the 19th century America was seen as the “best hope of mankind”.  The twentieth century - the American century - saw the US lead in the wars against monarchism, fascism, Nazism, militarism and then communism.  And in all those the democracies prevailed.

Today the vast majority, of the 191 nations on the planet, are democracies or have democratic style institutions and the dictatorships that remain use democratic modeled constitutions and institutions to appear legitimate.

But, something has gone wrong with the American system.  When this political system started it was based on civil debate of issues. There were great divisions over issues such as where to place the capitol, how to pay Revolutionary War debts and ultimately the issue of slavery.  All the disputes, except slavery, were resolved through civil discourse and political debate and most often compromise.  Not so with the issue of slavery - its extension or its elimination.  In the 1970's when the matter of abortion and the Supreme Court decision of Roe v Wade became viral many compared it to slavery as a moral issue that in the political arena did not lend itself to civility or to compromise.

Today every issue has become like the slavery and abortion issues.  Political debate is strident, nasty, combative and abusive in every arena: the Congress, the state legislature and the local municipal councils.  Town meetings consist of citizens shouting at elected officials, calling them liars and spewing forth their version of the facts.  Citizens come to meetings today armed with what they believe to be factual and they will listen to no one produce facts that contradict them.  Ronald Reagan used to say that “facts are stubborn things”.  Today everyone believes that they are entitled to their own facts, not just their own opinions.  If a group comes to a meeting believing that the sky is green and the elected officials can prove it is blue then the people call the officials liars and jeer at them. 

Without the ability to engage in civil discourse - to respect each other’s opinions but to recognize incontrovertible facts our system will not work.  Without the ability to develop consensus and sometimes compromise our system will not work.  And you cannot develop consensus and compromise if everyone insists that their version of the facts is the only correct version.
Lack of civil discourse has torn nations apart, sometimes for centuries (e.g. Ireland). And, it threatens America’s standing in the world--not as a military or economic super power but as the symbol of democracy to the many who venerate that symbol (e.g. the Libyan, Burmese and countless others fighting for their liberties).

I do not know how to restore civil discourse to our political system.  Those who do not engage in name calling and visceral attacks seem to lose elections which encourages others to so engage.   It might help if our schools went back to teaching civics so young people had some understanding of how the system works.  It might help if our schools were better at teaching history so our young people understood the founding of the nation and how it came about and how slavery almost tore it apart (and did cost 600,000 lives in a Civil War).  It might help if our religious institutions instead of being involved in every issue battle began fighting for a return to a more civil and respectful system.

Monday we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He dreamed of an America where brotherhood and freedom encompassed this nation from New Hampshire to California.  Today that dream is under attack, not just from those who would repeal programs or restrict rights, but from all who damage the American psyche and system with their negative ads, their false facts; their media ratings based attacks and their disrespectful treatment of the President, Congressmen, Mayors and local elected officials.

Perhaps all we need is for everyone to remember the words of what is truly our national hymn: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee; and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”. 

14 January 2012