Monday, February 22, 2016

Politics and Personalities

I came to an interesting realization the other day. There is a large volume of political commentary that lives in social network postings these days. On any issue, each side posts their  pictures, quotes, or brief comments and replies to advocate for a particular stance. Few of these postings are balanced, comprehensive discussions, versus one-sided / one-perspective statements of individual opinion. More significantly, they are often emotional gut reactions about a given individual. My realization was that I can usually tell in less than two seconds if someone is starting from a visceral dislike of that individual, and then working backwards to an opinion. In such cases, I have vowed to immediately press the “page down” key and skip over the comments and replies being offered. Because inevitably, there will be little offered up that will shed much light on the topic, or bring us any closer to a satisfactory resolution.

A picture of Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders appears, and within the first few words it will be obvious whether the narrative will be about the devil incarnate, an individual who has committed unspeakable past sins, a person with no ideas of value, who is most certainly out to destroy America. Ditto when the picture displayed is Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney, or Mitch McConnell. Or any number of other pictures and quotes. It is the individual who is the true object of disdain, and the supposed issue being referenced serves only as an excuse for expressing that disdain.

The difficult truth is that even those we call fools (or worse) sometimes have worthwhile ideas, even if not to some level of detail. Even noxious people sometimes have refreshing ideas. Even people with opinions different than our own have opinions and circumstances worthy of our consideration and respectful listening. Even if those opinions prove to be nothing of substance, engaging in a thoughtful, open discussion can sharpen the veracity of our own thinking. But when we start with a reflexively negative judgment of the person, we miss the opportunity for a greater and broader understanding of that which confronts us.

Unfortunately, our current societal discussion is almost entirely about people, not ideas. Political candidates spend time heaping slurs and judgments onto other people, none of which helps inform voters of what choices we have in our thinking, what potential actions are possible, what consequences may ensue. Yes, candidates toss out position papers, make claims about how they would deal with problems confronting us. Yet almost none of those “positions” are based upon truth or have any hope of achieving success. It has always been that way. Remember LBJ’s promise to keep us out of war? Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” for ending the Viet Nam War? St. Ronald of Reagan’s “voodoo economics” that would solve our budget deficit? George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips – no new taxes!”? Do we remember how all of those claims worked out?

Today we are treated to the same kind of extravagant claims by would-be miracle workers. A “beautiful wall” that will fully eliminate our immigration problem. A carpet bombing of ISIS “till it glows” that will end our fears of terrorism. A resetting of our direction to stop Obama –  “who knows exactly what he is doing.” A promise of single-payer universal health care for all. A target to rein in Wall Street excesses and favoritism. To those watching closely, none of these is a credible, achievable claim. To those not watching closely, one should be prepared for inevitable disappointment.

We will not have a $40B wall that will effectively stop illegal immigration, because walls do not accomplish their intended purpose (e.g. China’s Great Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, the Londonderry Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, the current Israeli Wall). And Mexico sure as hell will not pay for building it. There will be no carpet bombing of ISIS, especially as long as they embed themselves into the civilian population. That is the difficult reality of fighting terrorism that precludes easy rhetorical solutions. There will be no undoing of Obama’s last eight years, because Obama did know what he was doing – i.e. he did what the majority of Americans who elected him wanted him to do. (By the way, in case the candidates do not realize it, Obama is not on the ballot in 2016.) There will be no single payer / universal health care under the next president. The incremental step of Obamacare towards that end is still precariously under relentless attack, and still needs to settle in further if it is to continue. And Wall Street will not be broken up, and their favored status will only be marginally reined in, because the political landscape and institutionalized favoritism are still too strongly embedded to be easily overridden. So we need to get over believing these hollow promises in order to start some substantive discussions about where we should be going and what meaningful steps towards those goals are accomplishable.

It is said that people get the government they deserve, an end result of the level of their engagement, demand for accountability, their thinking about the issues based upon quality unbiased information, and their vote. So also with our election campaigns. If we start with our dislike of a person rather than talking specifics regarding his/her ideas and track record, then we will never get any real insight into where our vote should go and why. If we engage in name-calling, reflex judgments, and demonizing and/or victimizing, we will get a campaign that emulates our own conduct. A campaign such as is now unfolding before our eyes. A campaign that will ultimately elect some individual, but an individual with no national agenda that takes us truly forward together. Instead, the next four years will be just like the last eight years of division and stalemate. I may well be tiring of the insults, disrespect, bigotry, outlandish statements, and inconsistent positions and pandering that continually come from Donald trump and Ted Cruz. But I am also tiring of these same echoes coming from citizens of all political polarities. Our desire for thoughtful, intelligent discussion from our leaders and candidates necessarily starts in our own home.

©   2016   Randy Bell