Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Democrats Must Save America from Self-Destructing

I have never seen such an apparent deep split in the American people combined with such rage and intolerance towards the other side’s point of view.  This exceeds even the emotions generated by Vietnam.  Indeed, the ubiquitous nature of this rage is possibly worse than anything America has ever encountered.

But is what we are seeing and hearing a true reflection of the underlying reality, free of the passion of the moment?  If you ask people, whether on the Right or the Left, in red states or blue, what they feel about America, the answer will likely be very similar.  On the one hand, they love America for the rights we are guaranteed, the freedoms we are given to pursue our lives.  This universality is not just the stuff of folklore or political snake oil salesmen.  It is solidly based on our founding documents - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

On the other hand, people are distraught, nay outraged, because they feel those rights and freedoms have been withheld from them while granted to others.  Each aggrieved group perceives that their rights are being denied or threatened by the exercise of some other group’s rights, or the government is favoring the other group over them.   And they are intent on claiming the rights and freedoms due them.

For example, Blacks are aggrieved because despite our laws on equal opportunity and treatment there has never been anything close to equal opportunity for Blacks in this country, especially the poor.  It starts with  poorly funded and neglected inner city schools, a function of government discrimination, and continues with the existence of private discrimination in much of the job market.  

Whites on the other hand are aggrieved for several reasons.  They see affirmative action resulting in Blacks with less qualification still getting job preference 50 years after the civil rights laws were passed.  They take affront at being labeled part of the “privileged class” just because they are white whereas they most certainly do not feel privileged.  Many are suffering economically and angry that the government’s free trade policies have sacrificed their jobs for the benefit of big corporations and their investors.  And to add insult to injury, while feeling neglected and ignored by government, they see that same government supporting the rights of people of color and the LGBT community.

Honestly, both sides are basically right in their perceptions.  Both have been treated poorly by the government.  Yet I firmly believe these conflicts are not inherent in the nature of things.  There is no reason given America’s resources and wealth and our democracy’s principle of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” that everyone’s rights and freedoms cannot be met.

Why then have these problems existed for such a long time?  What is the source of this inequality, this discrimination, this neglect?

The problem is that we have a system of politics and a society that has been and remains stuck in a pre-democracy dynamic in which the have’s and the have-not’s were in constant struggle.  Where people of one persuasion or interest were in conflict with those of another, each trying to gain the upper hand.  Where one had to fight to get anything; there were no rights.  Certainly no universal equality.

It is a system and society not in sync with the “new” Enlightenment philosophy of equality expressed in our founding documents.  Indeed, those documents themselves, while they spoke of an aspirational equality, carried forward a decidedly unequal social system by leaving it to the states to decide matters such as slavery and the status of women.

While the law has evolved over the years to better reflect the philosophy of equality, and while society has also in many respects become more expressive of the principles of equality, there remain deep-seated antagonisms and distrust based largely on race/ethnicity and privilege but also gender and sexual orientation.  Our politics and society are still far from Martin Luther King’s dream “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ … When all of God’s children … will be able to join hands and sing, ‘Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

For most of the 20th century, politicians did not overtly play to these antagonisms.  But during the last few decades, the Right began directly flaming this distrust for their benefit.  In our most recent election, Donald Trump masterfully played on the failures of our political system and people’s distrust to create a firestorm of rage that swept him into office.  In response, the left has unfortunately responded in kind.

Both sides have now assumed an “you’re either with us or against us” attitude and vilify the other.  There is no search for commonality or compromise across the political chasm (what used to be called the political divide).  

The danger of this rage has frequently been commented on, in recent op-ed pieces such as Sabrina Tavernise’s ”Are Liberals Helping Trump” and Nicholas Kristof’s “Fight Trump, Not His Voters” in The New York Times, as well as my posts here.  We are coming dangerously close to self-destructing.

Interestingly, all of these articles are addressed to progressives, both on the supposition that they should know better and be able to rise above the fray, but also because their actions are ultimately counter-productive.  They are driving moderate supporters of Trump … yes, there are many millions if not tens of millions of them … more into Trump’s arms.  Indeed, I believe they are pushing Trump himself more into the arms of the far Right because he has no place else to turn to for support.

Yet there is no question in my mind, despite the intolerance displayed on both sides, that the vast majority of Americans have an essential commonality.  See my post, “Yes, Virginia, There Is Hope - The Invisible Majority.”  Bottom line, they each want for themselves, as well as for all Americans, the opportunity to partake of the American dream; it should not just be for a select group.  They want an America secure from terrorist attacks and from everyday violence.  They want a government that listens to them.  The vast majority do not support a Muslim registry and they approve of an “earned” path to citizenship for undocumented Latinos.  And as has become very clear, they want access to reasonably priced, high quality, comprehensive health care.  A clear majority, even of Trump voters,  support reasonable gun control efforts.

To begin the process of healing, to prevent the chasm from growing even larger, I proposed in the referred-to post, as well as at www.americansolidarity.org, that progressives reach out to Trump supporters.   To not demean them.  Specifically, I suggested the following:

Recognizing that Trump supporters are not the bogeyman, everyone on the progressive/center side of politics should be not only open to, but arguing for a new Democratic politics that reaches out to and forms a bond with the average Trump voter (many of whom were formerly mainstay Democrats).  This means foregoing identity politics and recognizing that we are all in the same boat and we all either swim or sink together.  And it means recognizing the things in Trump’s agenda which we can and should support because they are good for America. 

We need to say to Trump voters, “We support Trump’s efforts to create good-paying middle-class working jobs.  We support his efforts to restore and improve the country’s infrastructure.  

We feel for workers whose lives have been shattered and who have not been listened to.  We understand that we must make government more responsive to the people. 

We know you are not racists or bigots.   You are upstanding citizens and we apologize that anyone has characterized you otherwise.  

But there are dark forces out there which must be countered, and so we ask you to stand up as Trump supporters and make clear that:
    - You support an earned path to citizenship for undocumented Latinos who don't have
    a criminal record, have worked and paid taxes, and speak English, 
    - You oppose a Muslim registry of U.S. citizens, 
    - You unequivocally disapprove of any violent acts and vandalism taken by individuals/
    vigilante groups against Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, LGBT people, Jews, or 
    any other group,  
     - You support reasonable efforts to stop the sale of guns to those who have evidenced 
     that they cannot be trusted with the power of guns, and 
     - You support either changing or replacing Obamacare if that will provide improved 
     access to reasonably priced, high quality, comprehensive health care for all Americans.”

I stated in my 2004 book, We Still Hold These Truths, that America stands at a crossroad.  “There is a radical movement afoot to fundamentally alter the balance that our system has struck between private rights, the public good, and government.  The issue is not simply big versus small government, high versus low taxes.  At risk is the heart of our democracy, our historic values.”  

Until this past election, we were still at the same crossroad.  The 8-year term of Barack Obama did not, as many had hoped, change the dynamic of the aligned political forces but instead intensified them.  With the 2016 election, though, we have gone past that crossroad and are headed down a very dark path.  

There is a saying in the law that, “reasonable men may differ.”  We as a people need to find our way back to being “reasonable” men, with those on the left being able to agree to differ with those reasonable men who voted for Trump.  And vice versa; it does take two to tango.  We must seek out those areas where we agree. And where we don’t, we should agree to disagree … civilly.  

In a post of mine, “Darkness Before Light,” I argued that, as I have observed in 12-step programs, perhaps we needed to hit rock bottom before people are not just open to seeing the light but understanding that we must head towards the light, resolving these centuries-old antagonisms, if we are to survive as a nation.  Interestingly, at the end of Ms. Tavernise’s op-ed article noted above, she quotes a woman who is a registered Democrat but voted for Trump and is worried about the level of rage that is abroad in the country.  “Change doesn’t occur until you hit rock bottom, like an alcoholic, on his knees, begging for help.  I think we still have further to go.”  As I said in my post, I hope that is not the case.

We cannot allow our anger … yes, as a progressive I too am angry … regarding the 2016 campaign, the current President, his administration, nor radical Republicans in Congress, to lead us astray, to divert us from the American way.  That way, the way of our democracy, requires that all men be treated with respect.  Fight for what you think is right, but treat the opposing force with respect.  Name calling does not bring us any further towards our goal of a more just America.