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

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