The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pledge of Aggrievement

The Real Polarization in Politics Today Isn’t Policy or Ideology but Demonizing the Opposition

House Minority Leader John Boehner and the Republican Party released a Pledge to America on Wednesday. Anticipating gains in House and Senate seats rivaling or even exceeding the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, the GOP hoped to seal the deal by parroting Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America from that election. They intended to reassure voters fed up with Washington how Republicans will lead them.

Despite plenty of patriotic jingo, the document feels less like a Pledge of Allegiance about restoring America to greatness and more like a Pledge of Aggrievement, carping about everything changed and changing in America.

As the Associated Press reports, “The plan steers clear of specifics on important issues, such as how it will ‘put government on a path to a balanced budget.’ It omits altogether the question of how to address looming shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare, which account for a huge portion of the nation's soaring deficit, instead including a vague promise – ‘We will make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs’.”

In contrast, the document is quite specific about what it will undo. Republicans promised to repeal healthcare reform and end all economic stimulus programs. They pledged to forbid allowing the Bush tax to expire, making them permanent instead. They swore to cut spending back to 2008 levels, with the exception of defense, and freeze the tax code for two years. They assured they would prevent any form of carbon tax. They vowed to keep terrorist trials off U.S. soil and in military tribunals.

They also promised to continue their opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. They implied a promise to prevent gays and lesbians from serving in the military or marrying openly, at least until such time as the institutions currently discriminating against them voluntarily decided to reverse their positions.

The Pledge to America is, in short, a justification of and paean to everything Republicans have said “no” to over the past two years. It seeks, in no uncertain terms, to paint their opposition as heroism in the face of a dangerous regime. “Our government has failed us,” declared Republican House Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy of California. By “government,” McCarthy meant “Democrats,” characterized by the Pledge as “arrogant,” “out-of-touch,” and “self-appointed elites.”

The conventional wisdom runs that our nation’s two major political Parties are each growing more extreme and polarized. While this is unquestionably true, I assert it is also exaggerated. The Democratic Party’s core is more than its loony far left. The sum total of the GOP is more than its fanatic far right. The extremism and polarity lie less in specific policy or general ideology and more in both Parties’ practice of demonizing of the opposition.

While Republicans have been the most egregious offenders, in my opinion, especially in recent years, Democrats bear plenty of culpability too. If the GOP’s Pledge is short on fixes and long on complaints about what is wrong, so the Democratic response to it avoids defending their record of the past two years in favor of dire warnings about the eight years that preceded it. “Republicans want to return to the same failed economic policies that hurt millions of Americans and threatened our economy,” announced a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The temptation to demonize opponents has long existed in American politics. Just as it is usually easier to tear down than build up, so it is easier to scoff at the solutions proposed by others than offer viable solutions of one’s own. Traditionally, partisans mitigated this urge by realizing they and their opponents shared a common love of country or, at minimum, realizing too much demonizing left themselves open to charges of placing politics before country.

The clever but unfortunate solution to removing this restraint was to portray the opposition as beyond merely misguided but also dangerous and perhaps even malicious and unpatriotic. In light of such villainy, playing politics was synonymous with placing country first and justifiable.

Republican political operative Karl Rove understands this very well. He wrote to his fellow conservatives in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday about the importance of the Pledge in this regard. “What's brought Republicans so close to victory are their deep differences with Democrats. Now's the time to emphasize those policy disagreements in every way possible.” Except the document is not about policy differences but proclaiming, “Oooo, Democrats . . . scary!” thus leaving Republicans as sane and safe by contrast.

For their part, Democrats have been too quick to handle those disagreeing with them by hanging offensive and provocative labels on them, such as “facists,” “racists,” and “Islamophobes.” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson notes that for many conservatives, “Obama has become the object of their fear and rage that their America is being lost.” Yet much the same is true for George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan among liberals.

Heartening evidence exists that ordinary Americans remain more honest and decent than the political spin machines give them credit. Ruth Marcus, another Washington Post columnist, viewed focus groups conducted by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. The groups consisted of about thirty women each. All were from American’s heartland, all had some college and family incomes under $100 thousand, and all experienced negative impacts from the recession. They split equally between 2008 Obama and McCain voters and all were likely to vote in the fall midterms.

Even 2008 Obama voters were unwilling to give the President an unqualified endorsement for re-election in 2012. Words used to describe him varied from “disappointment” to “scares me.” In spite of this, both Marcus and the pollster were amazed at the amount of tolerance and sympathy for all the women toward what Obama was trying to do. Everyone shied away from blaming him for the current state of affairs.

“Poor Obama comes in and people expected him just to fix it all. People expected too much,” said one woman from Saint Louis. She was a McCain voter, by the way.

These women reserved their real anger, the anger that so many politicians have been trying to tap into lately, for members of Congress – the opposition Party as well as their own. In Marcus’s words, they were “exasperated by Washington lawmakers seemingly incapable of learning to get along.” Words used to describe them included “juvenile,” “boneheads,” “poison,” and “far removed from the working middle class.”

Some of the Republican ideas about healthcare reform, government spending, and taxes are good. I hope for their incorporation into legislation over the next two years and that Democrats will not obstruct them, as Republicans were so often guilty. At the same time, even if Republican sweep into a Congressional majority, I hope they do not shut out good Democratic ideas altogether, as Democrats too often did to them.

We need allegiance, not aggrievement, between the two Parties over the next two years. Sadly, each side will likely remain too dedicated to playing politics and winning partisan battles to let this occur. In doing so, they act not only against the country’s best interests but also their own. In order to win the “permanent majority” that Rove once envisioned for itself, either side must win over the souls of the opposition. The first step to doing that is conceding their opponents have souls in the first place.

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