Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tea parties, dissent and political polarization

(Originally published 4/18/09)

You can learn a lot from a tea party.

Organizers meant the parties, held nationwide on Wednesday, as a visible demonstration of taxpayer anger with massive government spending and mounting federal debt.

But for me, the lesson was about unity –- and whether this country has any of it left.

Tea partiers carried all sorts of signs, some witty, some profound.

But others, including those with slogans rejecting President Obama as this country's leader, were downright disturbing. "Obama is not my president," they read.

These Americans demonize and reject the leadership of the candidate for whom they did not vote -– ironically, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats throughout President George W. Bush's administration, especially after the 2000 election.

It's disappointing to me that so many people who lamented that treatment of President Bush are now doing the same to President Obama.

As I've discussed in this space before, there is a difference between disagreeing with someone politically and disrespecting the office that person holds. Yes, it's true that free speech protects both. But useful political discourse restricts itself to the former.

Just as disturbing as those signs disowning the president was the media coverage of the tea parties themselves. Cable news anchors peppered their reports with barely-concealed sexual references and a disdain for the participants that they didn't bother to conceal at all.

And liberals scoff at conservatives' outrage over mainstream media bias.

How did it come to this?

It's simple: Americans have forgotten how to respectfully disagree with each other.

This is partially a function of the way we do elections. We start with two major parties, hold primaries that empower those on the edges of those parties and make it nearly impossible for third-party candidates to gain traction in general elections.

And we wonder why governing is so contentious and why we have so many disaffected citizens.

But the polarization of America is also a function of individual Americans who have determined that there is no value or truth in the arguments of those on the other side.

This is dangerous territory, and not only because they're dead wrong.

This is the thought process that opens the door for secessionists. Once the mysterious realm reserved only for obscure Alaskan ├╝ber-conservatives and extreme liberals in Vermont, the group was joined this week by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who used a tea party in Austin to remind everyone that the Lone Star State didn't have to stay a part of the USA if it didn't want to.

But more disturbing than the movement of secession talk into the mainstream were the assents Perry's comments found among Americans left of center: "Let 'em go, and take the rest of the Bible Belt with 'em," one person in a chorus of others wrote.

What if this had been Lincoln's attitude?

History has shown us what happens when Americans lose confidence and give up on elections as the ultimate arbiter of ideas.

But what if the only thing Americans on the left and right can agree on is that our Union isn't worth saving?

Partisan arrogance is poisoning our people and tearing this country apart.

Americans, do your nation a favor: Listen to your neighbor. Respect his opinion.

You'll do your part to save this country, and you just might find that your "enemy" –- your fellow citizen –- can actually be your friend.

No comments: