I turned 16 days before Ronald Reagan was first elected President. I don’t remember Vietnam or Watergate, although I have vague memories of Ford pardoning Nixon. My memories of American politics really begin with Jimmy Carter because what American living at that time who was older than a toddler could forget the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
In the late 1970’s ABC started running a late night news program called Nightline. It ran every weeknight at 11:30 p.m. When the Iranians stormed our embassy in Tehran and took hostages, Nightline made its name. A nightly count of the number of days the hostages were held had the nation transfixed. The show was relentless in its daily, rhythmic reminder that Americans were being held by a nation and people that viewed America as the Great Satan and chanted “Death to America” in the streets.
There were other things about Carter I remember … malaise, lust in his heart, an attack rabbit in a pond, the energy crisis. For years, I have had this memory of talking with one of my sisters, who was old enough to vote in 1980, that I would vote for Reagan if I could vote. I no longer know if that memory is accurate. I liked Carter as President … but that hostage situation was such a black mark, in my youth I may have thought he needed to be replaced.
In 1982 when I could register to vote, I registered as a Democrat, and I spent the entirety of the Reagan Presidency opposed to pretty much everything he did. I’m not sure how I could have wanted to vote for him at the tender age of 16 and so immediately switched gears to opposition.
The Reagan Presidency was marked by a lot of partisan strife, as any administration has during the course of our history, but amidst that partisanship, the parties and their leaders could come together and compromise on things that really mattered. Democrats like Edward Kennedy and Tip O’Neill could campaign against Republicans, object to their ideals, and still meet with them and compromise to work towards solutions the nation needed. Similar spirit of cooperative competition existed at the state level as well.
Something has happened since then. The ability to compete and pursue partisan objectives while also finding areas of compromise has pretty much gone the way of the dodo bird. The political parties in the United States have become entities where 100% ideological purity is required, any weakness is met with an uproar of opposition, and the “weak” are drummed out of office.
I’ve always traced the beginning of this trend back to the election of Bill Clinton. After 12 years of Reagan and Bush I in the White House, Republicans came to believe the office was their birthright. (Really, you could argue that the Carter Presidency was just a four year blip in the Republican domination of the Presidency with a Republican in that office 20 out of the previous 24 years.) Add to their birthright claim the predominant view of Clinton as being morally unfit for office and you had a combustible mix of factors.
A few Republican leaders, Newt Gingrich at the forefront, and Republican controlled media like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and lesser lights who worked primarily behind the scenes like Lee Atwater and other strategists, began a strategy of all out ideological war. The mid-90s was the beginning of ideological purity driven by the more extreme wing of a political party — the Republicans.
It was also a time when the 24 hour news cycle really came into being. CNN started in 1980 but I think it was a relatively sleepy news channel that really did just report the news for a while. The 24 hour news wars didn’t really start until 1996 when Fox News fired up its engines. With this competition, the two heavyweights and other channels began their own war for our attention.
And then the internet and social media came.
George Bush II was elected. While there was a lot of Democratic opposition to him, there was still some ability and interest in compromise. There was plenty of partisanship and Democratic attacks on him and other Republicans, but it wasn’t 100% partisanship all the time.
And social media grew in its omnipresence.
With Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the Republican Party again lit up and nothing has really been the same since. The birth of the Tea Party drove the Republican Party into the arms of its extremists. Moderate Republicans in Congress and across the nation who showed in favor for compromise and cooperation were driven from office, replaced by more ideologically pure Republicans. It became impossible for a Republican to show moderation. As a result, Republican members of Congress refused to cooperate with the Obama administration on pretty much everything.
Social media continued to grow and became a megaphone used by the extremists on both sides of the political aisle.
Then Donald Trump was elected President, primarily through his ability to dominate the news cycle and social media. Say what you want about him, but he has a native intelligence about how to manipulate people, and his actions have furthered the outrage machine and ratcheted up the noise.
How have Democrats reacted to his election — pretty much the same way Republicans reacted to Clinton’s election and Obama’s. With all-out rage and a drive for ideological purity on the left side of the aisle. You can see it in this year’s race for the Senate in California. Diane Feinstein is not liberal enough, not progressive enough, not strong enough against Trump. She simply is not enough and every single moderating step she takes is criticized relentlessly by the megaphone of the far left.
The drivers of the modern Democrat party — identity politics, political correctness, socialism, radical progressives … I could go on — have transcended rational thought. A recent example is the turning of Serena Williams’ tantrum at the U.S. Open into an example of gender and racial discrimination in America. The issue I have with this was that it was immediate and started without any thought at all. Simply because she is an African-American woman and she was disciplined means it is about her gender and her race. Anybody who believes otherwise is shouted down and called a racist and a sexist.
Situations like that are the left-wing equivalent of what the Tea Party has done to the Republican Party over the last ten years. The extremists on both sides, and yes I am calling the identity-driven wing of the Democratic Party extremists because they have lost their way amidst their outrage, are intent on hammering a massive spike into the heart of American political debate. It is simply not enough to have different ideas anymore, you must hate your opponent.
The biggest problem is that our “leaders,” the men and women who are supposed to lead us through their roles as members of Congress, through their holding of offices in statehouses across the nation, are no longer leaders. They are followers. Instead of leading, they follow like sheep along the path set by the loudest, most extreme voices in each political party.
This is what social media has done to our politics. The megaphones used by the extreme right-wing and left-wing are drowning out any rational, bipartisan voices. There is only one noise in America these days — it is the primal scream of those who demand everything and refuse to give an inch on anything. It is the yelling of those who believe politics is a zero-sum game, a black and white world in which you are either absolutely right, or absolutely wrong and there is no gray area in which everybody wins a little and loses a little as well.
It’s a battleground without any peace talks. There is pretty much no chance at an armistice, let alone a peace treaty. On the right-wing blog I read, commenters discuss that we are engaged in a civil war — one that will become much more real if Trump is impeached or otherwise driven from office. While not quite as violently stated, you can see similar comments from the left on Twitter and on left-wing blogs. The intolerance on both sides is stunning and unbounded.
And I’m pretty much done with it. I’ve watched with growing dismay the events of the last two years and I’ve given up hope that either political party will reverse course. I no longer believe our current “leaders” are capable of anything remotely resembling real leadership.
A couple of weeks ago, one of the people I follow on Twitter (@katiedawn3) tweeted a link to t-shirts being sold at teespring.com that include the phrase “United We Stand.”
I recall efforts to adopt this phrase after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and never really liked it. In the circumstances, it was far too jingoistic and “military” for me.
It is, however, a phrase that now makes sense. Reasonable, rational people from both political parties need to unite and stand up. We need to be heard and demand that our leaders start to lead again. They will only do that if they hear from us. We need to start making more noise than the irrational and the outraged.
When somebody on your side of the political debate takes an unreasonable position, or unnecessarily attacks the other side, it’s time to say as loudly as you can “that’s unacceptable.”
When somebody on the other side of the debate says something you agree with, it’s time to say “hey, I agree. what else can we agree on?” and keep that conversation going. See where it leads.
I spoke yesterday with a guy who lives in Texas. He describes himself as a true Texan — a farm, cowboy hats, truck, and all. He’s a Republican who voted for Trump but will not vote for Ted Cruz this year and is disgusted by what Trump is doing. A Texas Republican and a California Democrat had more to agree on than to disagree on. It can happen.
It’s time to make some noise.
Maybe the two major political parties are beyond saving. Maybe it’s time for a new party to rise from the ashes of the fires lit by the outraged. That’s a pretty heavy lift, but fixing the political parties may be even more difficult.
Make your voice heard!
Shout down the intolerant and the irrational! On both sides!
It is time for the moderate and the meek to be heard.
Or we all may just fall. I really believe the divide in this nation is that serious.
By the way, I ordered a shirt from Teespring…