Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Our Divided Nation - Part 2

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Part 1 of this blog posting was a brief look at some of our internal conflicts and divisions since our founding. That review affirmed that America has always had its debates, its divisions of belief, its continual adjustments of what “America” means and aspires to be. We are highly unlikely to ever escape this heritage. Instead, the questions are a) how to manage our divisions in such a way so as to not tear ourselves apart and collapse, and b) how to build on our divisions towards something better for all. We will not succeed by futilely trying to eliminate conflict. We will succeed by following the precedent of our Founders in developing better skills at working together to resolve conflicts.

We continue this discussion with another brief review – i.e. where we are today. As a result of our current divisions, collective solutions are rarely found; our progress as a nation is near-frozen in place. In the last seven presidential elections, in only three did the winner get 50% or more of the popular vote; two elections were won in the Electoral College with less than the majority popular vote. Today, minimalistic short-term gains are hailed as major agreements; small-minded thinking edges out big-picture vision and creative aspirations. We have not passed a real national annual budget in years, versus a series of short-term “continuing resolutions” that keep spending on a status quo with no hard decisions made. The evil economic Armageddon of budget deficits is swept under the rug in the pursuit of a Christmas tax cut for (supposedly) everyone, a cut that disguises rewards to special interests and is built upon a disproven economic theory called “trickle down.” Paying taxes is resented, but the benefits and services received back from those tax payments go unrecognized and unappreciated. The states paying the least taxes receive back the most in tax benefits; the “reddest” conservative states advocating a limited role for government make up the bottom ratings of most all economic and social measures.

With our institutions, many supposedly “non-profit” charities, hospitals and cultural organizations have become de facto for-profit bodies. Public education, the traditional path to upward mobility that most of us benefited from in our youth, is being progressively defunded and devalued. Basic medical care is a “benefit” requiring employment, or affordable only by the very wealthy; medical expenses remain the primary cause of personal bankruptcies. Government regulations protecting Americans’ health, economic competitiveness, and the environment we live and play in, have become a nasty nuisance to be shredded in the acquisition of unrestrained business profit; one person’s stifling regulation is another person’s safety valve protection.

Ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich declared war on the federal government in 1995; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell upped that ante with a “Party over Country” strategy in 2008 with his “oppose everything Obama” stance; Democrats now exercise their own tit-for-tat negative block voting. Lying, ridicule, and character assassination have replaced substantive debate; facts are “fake news” in order to hide uncomfortable truths. Science has been downgraded into personal opinions.  Name-calling and slurs of all types dominate headlines; ugliness has found its voice, as exemplified at Charlottesville. “Enemies” are seen all around us – the government, the media, corporations and businesses, religions, entertainment. A minority of rogue actors discolor most all professions, including politicians, medical and pharmaceutical executives, police and the law.  The pursuit of power and wealth, rather than substance, drives the political landscape. The strategy is to emphasize our divisions, even creating division where there was none, thereby giving voice to extreme positions on all sides instead of searching for common ground. National and international leadership is defined as “loyalty above all” and just telling people – and other nations – what to do, rather than inspiring them by positive example appealing to our better selves. One cannot effectively lead with mid-30s% approval ratings; a nation cannot be properly governed with a 55-60% voter turnout.

“We have met the enemy, and it is us.”  Pogo (comic strip character)

How do we get out of this discouraging mess? By remembering our history. We have come out of tough times before, and we can come out of these times also. But history also tells us that it will not happen automatically, by default. We have to work hard to find our way out. We have to make it happen, not wait for someone else to do it for us. In many ways, living under Kings/Queens was easier: they simply made a decision, the royal court carried out the decision, and the people did what they were told without question. Governing was someone else’s job. Thirteen English colonies rebelled against that system, and had the audacity to say “we will govern ourselves.” Whether we are actually capable of doing it for ourselves has always been a key question inherent within our Constitution. It is a key question now facing us in these times.

Our solutions start with each of us acting as we wish our government and politicians to act. If we decry the partisanship environment, then what are we doing each day to act bi-partisanly? If we decry a lack of civility in our national conversations, what are we doing each day to speak civilly to one another? If we decry others’ lack of respect for our concerns, what respect are we showing for their concerns? If “they” are so wrong, what are we also possibly wrong about? If we are so right, what are “they” potentially right about? When our politicians state falsehoods in their quest for votes, do we challenge them for their proof and present our proof? Do we hold them – and ourselves – accountable for the hypocrisy that is spoken and acted? When political candidates talk about wanting to “work across the aisle,” that answer is usually obfuscated rhetoric designed to avoid the bi-partisan question while implicitly blaming “the other guy” for not cooperating. Instead, demand specific ideas for specific legislation or action, or ask for specific examples of bi-partisan actions (e.g. jointly sponsored legislation) and vote against that candidate if s/he does not provide them.

We do not change things by sitting on the sidelines. We do not change things by clinging to our own self-righteous convenient beliefs, challenging others without challenging ourselves. We do not change things by thinking small and avoiding the larger picture. I suggest we search out and find the broad and substantive thinkers. Discern between those people truly sacrificing in order to do good, and those demagogues and charlatans seeking our attention and money to benefit themselves. Choose to be part of a national conversation, not a shouting match. Call out and reject that which is said and done that is not acceptable and respectful conduct.

Nothing worthwhile will be accomplished while we are just insulting and yelling at each other. Seek the evidence; listen before speaking; find the worthwhile substance in opposite opinions. Then we can conclude, speak factually without malice, provide substantive ideas instead of complaints, and finally – act.  Perhaps in that process we can figure out what kind of a country we truly are: the nasty selfish country we seem to have dangerously become, or the generous welcoming country we have always aspired to be.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Are we just interested in making noise, or making things work for one another. Are we in fact what we object to? Or are we what we aspire to see and be?

©   2018   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Our Divided Nation - Part 1

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”   Abraham Lincoln

It is no secret that our nation is a highly divided one. At times, it is quite bitterly and antagonistically so. People seemingly cannot find agreement in much of anything. Except for calls for stricter background checks on gun purchases, an end to Donald Trump tweets, and the low esteem held towards Congress, almost everything else is within no more than a sliver of percentage points for/against.

Unfortunately, little is being done to end this divide – or at least lessen the degrees of division. Few are willing to budge from their positions; compromise is a deadly sin; right and wrong are absolute, with no gray shadings. I win; you lose. I could care less about your needs and concerns as long as I get what I want. My life and success is defined by obtaining wealth. Selfishness is supreme. This is what it often feels like in American conversations today.

The situation can feel quite hopeless, that this is the worst America has been, and there is no way out. But in fact, the way out of this negative environment starts with recognizing that we have been here before, sometimes in even worse circumstances and fractured divisiveness. Nevertheless, we are still around, alive and kicking, still trying to figure out how to make this “representative democracy” thing we call America work.

America has always been divided. Whereas most other countries have a relative homogeneous culture, America was populated from the outset as a common home for uncommon peoples. It provided a place for immigrants from diverse histories, cultures, ethnicities and ambitions. From that combustible mix, differences are part of our national legacies. Whether we, or any nation, can synthesize such a combustive mixture into a shared cooperative whole – “united we stand” / “e pluribus unum” (out of one, many) – has always been our national challenge.

The “United” States of America is some part actuality and some part myth. Our first two English-based colonies were driven by completely different goals: Jamestown, a pursuit of wealth; Plymouth, a pursuit of religious practice. (Reciprocal religious tolerance was not a high priority; at various times, religious discrimination by parts of Protestant America has been directed against virtually all other religions and varying religious thought.) Those two ideas – the secular and the religious – have been fighting with each other (and within themselves) since our beginning. During our Revolution against England, around half of the country were Tories favoring staying with the King. Our admired and unique Constitution barely passed the votes of all thirteen colonies. The slavery issue, the continual fights over balancing small state/big state representation, and the degree of power to be given to the new central government, almost broke the back of Constitutional unity. But we found the necessary compromises, and our Constitutional Nation was able to begin.

Political parties – never envisioned by the Founders – showed up just a couple of years into Washington’s first term (to his continual frustration), thereby formalizing and institutionalizing our divisions. The remaining old guard Founders were aghast when the government was turned over to the “common man” in 1828, a political revolution led by Andrew Jackson. After years of trying to compromise on slavery and states’ rights, we had our most divisive time in our history – the American Civil War. It was a “hot” war, not a political debate, pitting families against families, neighbors against neighbors. 11 of 34 states pulled out of our Union; 600,000+ died (our most costly war); the southern economy and its political and social systems were wrecked; we had our first presidential assassination. Separation and mistrust were embedded into the Southern cultural DNA. 150 years later, the after-affects are still influencing and distorting today’s conversations. But we did reunite; our union was preserved; together we limped forward.

Division continued. The mega-wealthy “robber barons” of the late 1800s gave rise to the Labor movement of the working people trying to rebalance economic power. There was racial and immigration ugliness throughout the next century. Then came the Great Depression, an unequaled economic devastation of this country, fueled by the unbridled and unregulated pursuit of wealth gone awry. We were deeply divided over how to end that Depression, with competing economic theories that are still debated today. It was an event that defined that generation’s thinking, and redefined the formal structures and expectations of government forever after.  The Depression ended; racial and ethnic intolerance did not.

We were divided as World War II spread over the globe. Do we get in, or do we stay out as the “America First” peace and isolation movement demanded? Pearl Harbor answered that question and reunited the country’s divides. Our swagger and self-confidence from our victory in that War gave way to a Cold War and Iron Curtain, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fear of Communism. “Reds” were everywhere as citizens turned against fellow citizens out of fear stoked by self-serving demagogic politicians. It was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joe McCarthy’s “big lies,” “red baiting,” blacklists / unproven accusations / reputations and careers destroyed by innuendo. In spite of the dark times at home, America led the free world, though often using highly questionable methods.

Our modern civil rights movement began with President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate the military in 1948, followed by the Supreme Court’s outlawing of school desegregation in 1954 (“Brown vs. Board of Education”). The promise of equality encountered the demand to actualize that equality. It was yet another re-scrambling of the social order and our sense of social right and wrong. Racial division and the drive towards integration were bitterly fought among the general populace and established order. For the first time in our history, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy used federal troops to protect protestors instead of the usual power structures in place. At times it was a violent fight: crowd beatings, murders, bombings, burned out Freedom Buses, political assassinations. The movement gave a venting to 300 years of African-American inequality, and opened new movements of their own: gay rights; women’s equality; Native-American rights. America was split apart on numerous fronts, the way forward elusive if not hidden.

Our civil rights fights segued into an anti-war movement that became its own war in the name of peace. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” became the defining oxymoron of the times, and America often felt like “the village” being destroyed. There was generational division between young and old, between older vets and young draftees, between government and citizens as more and more war lies were revealed. The meaning of patriotism itself was intensely debated. The hostile times led to a Constitutional Crisis; President Richard Nixon and his first Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned over their separate criminal actions, and a number of inner circle players went to prison. The public has never since trusted its government – or each other –in the traditional way. Division, and a loss of faith in our trusted institutions, became entrenched. Yet the country and its institutions held, thanks in no small part to the reconciliation efforts of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

So why this trip down the darker alleyways of America’s Memory Lane? Certainly not to denigrate the American Stories of inspiring accomplishments and the expressions of our greater humanity. These improbable stories are even more extraordinary when viewed against the hurdles and resistance they often had to overcome. The meaning of Roy Moore’s recent defeat for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat is even more significant in the context of former-governor George Corley Wallace – the poster boy for segregation during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Our past is the fuel that drives us to our future. Left unchecked, the past is our future. If we remind ourselves of our history, and ground our decisions within that context, then how do we assess where we are now? Where do we go from here? That will be the discussion in the forthcoming Part 2 of this blog posting.

©   2018   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com