On my next birthday I will turn 73, though I prefer to think of that age as 65 plus shipping and handling. Harry Truman was president until I was six years old, and a dozen others have held that office since. I began voting in the 1968 election and have observed, with almost clinical interest, the triumphs and shenanigans of our leaders since then, including Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. For the first time since that debacle, I feel as though our nation is resting uneasily on a vast but thin sheet of ice above a wide and bottomless abyss.
There seems to be no such thing now as compromise or any middle ground that might suggest a balanced view of what we as a nation need. I mean it’s nothing new that the scales are tipped in favor of the rich and powerful, but vast numbers of voters seem to have been beguiled into believing that this is perfectly all right. The division is so devastatingly complete, that the words Democrat and Republican don’t even come close to meaning what they once represented. Rather, the words have become insults for one group to another, far worse than any other vocabulary we can summon.
I would love to blame this terrible separation and divisiveness on the Russians, the extreme stubbornness of both political parties, the death of Mr. Rogers, toxins in our drinking water, climate change, or the hard-edged humor of our current family sit-coms, but I’m convinced that our political climate is based, more than ever before, on a mentality that fears losing ground as in a soccer game or some other sport, only with actual death, and obliteration being the consequence of not “winning.” Our political landscape has become rather like a huge sports arena, with rabid fans screaming from both sides, as though everyone on one side will perish if the other side wins in any way at all.
Insults abound, not as simple badinage, but rather as weapons in a life-death struggle for power on the world stage, one result being that politics has become snide and back-biting, with each insult and innuendo wearing down a little further that protective shield we used to honor in the shared quest to do what was right for the entire nation, not just one group or party.
I don’t blame the President alone for this erosion of trust, dignity and decency. It began, really, in the 1980’s with ravenous fear-mongers like Newt Gingrich, who didn’t know the meaning of the word compromise. It was a true introduction to political tribalism. The hole in the dyke since then has become too large to be plugged by an index finger from either party, the middle finger usually having replaced the other three (physically as well as figuratively) as the prime symbol of “winning.”
At the risk of switching metaphors yet again, I have to say that remembering the theatrics of the Tea Party, I hardly think that the label of “mob mentality” describes only the Democrats, any more than the mob actions last year of the White Supremacists should describe Republicans. Name-calling solves nothing and serves only as a distraction from facts and genuine needs. Both parties are expert at trimming facts to suit their individual desires, regardless of what the nation needs.
I remember the Hale-Bopp Comet incident of 1997, when thirty-nine otherwise “sane” people were convinced to commit suicide at the time when the comet would be closest to earth, so it could be the “vehicle” (Heaven’s Gate) to paradise. Each of those gullible people also paid $10,000 abduction insurance. It was perhaps a kind of group hypnosis, but what I recall most clearly is a group photo of the believers listening raptly to their leader, Marshall Applewhite. Their smiles suggested to me that the group was in some kind of shared euphoria, where such facial expressions suggested anything but what was actually going on. That recollection haunts me even now when I see television coverage of some political rallies across the country, and all those faces in the background smiling thoughtlessly as though from some comfortable coma. JB