As the rhetoric heats up leading to the end of a contentious election campaign, I’ve been assessing the damage of not only recent months, or the past four years, but the longer slide from the ideals of a new nation called The United States of America.
Mostly random thoughts: Is the very name a joke, a mockery? United? We were not even united when we set up shop. Federalist and states' rights advocates battled each other to a compromise that has yet to be settled.
In a civil war, generals (like Robert E. Lee) chose to recognize their state as their country (Virginia) instead of the nation that created and funded West Point as a national college to educate army officers.
As journalist Mignon McLaughlin once wrote, “It’s impossible to be loyal to your family, your friends, your country and your principles all at the same time.”
Not that principles are still as important as they were to Lee. Today’s problems, of course, are defined right there: Which principles?
Which is why the Supreme Court issue is so important. How can we fight over who gets to manipulate the workings of justice to their advantage, and to the detriment of “the other side”
Senators like Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham cited principle when they stalled for almost the full year leading up to the last presidential election. It was too late to pass President Obama’s nominee, they said. But this year, of course, they have rammed through the judicial appointment of a Republican president in record time, without shame — using rationale that should be seen for the insult it is to the intelligence of the public, regardless of party leanings.
Principle has been replaced by sheer gall. Not even logic can carry the debate in today’s political atmosphere, which is driven by ambition, marketing strategies, and a burn the crops, take no prisoners pathology.
Political campaigning always had bare-knuckles moments. Duels were fought in years past; they were more civilized than some of the actions of today’s practitioners of political gamesmanship.
Debates are more theater than instruction. I participated in perhaps a dozen over two campaigns in the relatively docile atmosphere of local politics, but the experience was instructive.
The tactics of partisan zealots was the same in Carroll County as what you have seen on the national networks: Candidates learn how to deflect away from the moderators' questions and turn the answer into a two-minute campaign speech — or attack on the opposition. Distract the opponent with interruptions, employ histrionics to entertain the audience, and challenge the fairness of the moderator or the sponsors of the forum.
The more words you use to explain a point, the greater risk someone will take the answer out of context. Thus, what a conscientious environmentalist might propose as part of mitigating surface runoffs to curtail pollution of waterways becomes a “rain tax” – a way to ridicule a reasonable suggestion for a solution to a real threat to the entire population. How much of a tax refund do you need to feel good about ruining water resources?
Political rhetoric proves little about the virtues of candidates. It takes a longer view, and an open mind, to achieve the wisdom of remembering that you can’t argue facts with a liar, you should not expect ethics from a predator, and it’s a waste of time to try to find ideals in the mind of a sociopath.
Literature is full of cautionary tales about what happens to innocent villagers who fall under the spell of a con man, arriving with a parade of clowns, a marching band, bright colors and flamboyant rhetoric.
The last election exposed the Achilles heel of the American version of democracy: The freedom to make disastrous choices. By the numbers of people who have registered and in the fact that mail-in and early voters are standing line to add to a tally that already surpasses the turnout of the 2016 vote, perhaps this year will show the strength of our system: The power of redemption.
Dean Minnich has been a reporter, editor and columnist, and served two terms as a county commissioner. His column appears Thursdays. He reads email at firstname.lastname@example.org.