"Politics should be a means to an end, not a sporting event in which you root for one team and against the other." I am confident that my newspaper column will completely change the dynamics of American political discourse.
Attacking issues, not people
By Edward Cone
News & Record
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting transparency in government, tracks the frequency with which members of Congress utter particular words in speeches and remarks from the floor. Many of North Carolina's elected representatives, including our own Howard Coble, regularly mention "North Carolina." Sen. Richard Burr, a heavyweight on veterans' issues, says "veterans" a lot.
But the North Carolinian who seems fixated on a single word is Fifth District Rep. Virginia Foxx. She is a Republican who can't stop saying "Democrats." According to the Under the Dome political blog, Foxx said "Democrats" 428 times last year, making it the most-used word by the state delegation.
This strikes me as a telling data point about American politics these days: The Democrats are talking about the issues, and the Republicans are talking about the Democrats. That's a reductive analysis, of course, but not an irrelevant one.
Which reminds me of an epiphany I had many years ago while listening to Rush Limbaugh. He was going on about feminists or college professors or some such frightful genus of the Liberal phylum, and I thought, wait, I've known my share of feminists and college professors and such, and most of them were pretty decent people, possessed of their own opinions, not at all like the monstrous or deluded specimens Rush was describing. And it struck me that the same was true about people I know who occupy the other end of the political spectrum, and the points in between -- they're by and large regular folks who want good things for their families and their country. It was as if Rush was more interested in setting people against each other than in getting something done.
That's not to say that everyone can or should agree about everything, or that ordinary people are incapable of herd behavior and ugly things (see Evil, Banality of), just that a lot of us are more interested in solutions to problems than we are in demonizing people who might seek to solve those problems in a different way. Politics should be a means to an end, not a sporting event in which you root for one team and against the other. Jon Stewart made all this clear years ago on "Crossfire" with his epic takedown of the cable news mentality, but not much has changed since then in the mediasphere.
Barack Obama hit on a similar theme in his recent commencement address at Notre Dame. I think there's a generational aspect to his worldview -- people our age are sick of the same old thing -- and it reflects his pragmatic temperament. (But I'm also starting to get a complex about him: First he jumped on the UNC basketball bandwagon; then he got a Portuguese water dog, as our family did many years ago; and then the surviving members of the Grateful Dead visited the White House. Now the speech thing.)
The context for Obama's remarks at the Catholic university was one of the most contentious issues of all, abortion. Here's part of what he said:
"The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved.
"The question, then -- the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"
This is what it means to describe Obama as "post-partisan." Not that he lacks a viewpoint, but that he recognizes the validity of other viewpoints and is interested in trying to find common ground. Doing that with abortion seems especially hard, but I don't think it has to be. The key is not to get people to agree on the legality of abortion, but to honor the value of opposing views and to agree on related issues, like reducing unwanted pregnancy.
The same logic applies to hot-button issues like the interrogation of suspected terrorists. It seems reasonable to assume that many or most people who question the value of waterboarding value national security and the safety of their own families; they remember 9/11. And it seems reasonable to assume that many or most people who support waterboarding value rule of law and reasonable restrictions on government's behavior. And so on.
Differences will remain. Someone is always going to be disappointed with the outcome of a given policy debate. And some people really are invested in the team-sport view of politics. But the same old shouting matches are not getting us anywhere. We need to listen, too. It is problem-solving time in this country.
© News & Record 2009