Whatever happened to civil conversations about politics? What drives us to the point where everyone fails to respect each other’s political opinion? How has sharing points of view about political news become so prickly and abrasive?
Almost one-third of Americans said that they have been avoiding for a year any talk of politics with a family member simply because of differences in political opinions, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken two weeks ago. It also found that in social media, 17 percent had blocked or “unfriended” someone because of the recent presidential campaign, and 22 percent had been harassed for their political beliefs.
As polarized America prepares for the next presidential inauguration, the Washington Post headlines its report on the front page of its 12 December Metro section, “DC Readies for Horde of Inaugural Protesters.” They predict “hundreds of thousands” will protest Donald Trump’s swearing-in. But not to worry, as capital officials are ready with “thousands of police officers and National Guard members from across the country.”
Consider, for what it’s worth, that when Republican presidents are inaugurated, such unfriendly, often mean-spirited demonstrations are the norm: anti-war demonstrations, some violent, with Nixon’s swearing-in; angry demonstrations again with Reagan in 1981; again with George H.W. Bush in 1989; again with audible jeering during his Inaugural Address when George W. Bush succeeded Clinton.
But with the inaugurations of Carter in 1977, Clinton in 1993, or Obama in 2009, no comparable demonstrations, or violence or vandalism happened. Is this because of how the press sets a tone of lamentation with the arrival of a Republican president, or has it more to do with some difference in character, or possibly attitude, between the left and the right in these United States?
All this leads to an interesting question: have conservatives and liberals reached a divide from where there is no return? One gets the impression that the right completely misunderstands the liberal left, and sees it all about “us vs. them.”
The left, for their part, seem to have enlarged views of their own abilities. They seem not merely to distrust the wisdom of their fellow citizens, but to belittle them. Their views are eternally correct because they are forever informed.
Intolerance boils over in the left, witness actor Nicholas Cage’s openly mulling over whether to take the part of Reagan in an upcoming movie. He frets that his Hollywood career might end in leftist retribution, simply because the movie casts Reagan in a positive light.
In an August Huffington Post article, entitled “The Culture of the Smug White Liberal,” Nikki Johnson-Huston posited, “Somewhere along the way we stopped fighting for the little guy and became the party of the smug, educated elites who look down on those with less education and deem them unworthy of being able to make personal decisions for their own lives.”
Take Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, described in an article in Vox by Emmett Resnin as a program that “advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that its opponents are, before anything else, stupid.” Other liberal kindred spirits describe Stewart’s program as how the “righteousness of those in the know was assumed, and opponents were treated with scorn.”
Possibly the roots of conservatism’s hardening posture also lies in attitude, but not one of condescension. It seems more an attitude of being fed up, of aggravation for not being heard. Political discussion among many on the right turns to taking real offense, often personal and deeper than ever.
Columnist George Will pines for the days of William F. Buckley, whom he described in a recent book review as one conservative who could be “fervently engaged in public controversies without being coarse or unforgiving.”
So maybe we can see a bit more clearly, and sadly, how the great American pastime of talking politics has shut down. Maybe Washington’s infamous gridlock reflects all of us. Is there room for civil discourse anymore, as ridicule and disrespect take a tighter grip on both sides? Seeing the problem this way may help solve it. As Will puts it, the well-lived life should be “simultaneously serious and fun.” So let’s revive the approach Abe Lincoln prescribed, and carry on our political conversations this New Year “with malice toward none.”
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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