These were the words I heard someone say on the radio as I was getting ready for church this week. I’m not really sure in what context the speaker was preaching on but as I went through the day, my thoughts kept going back to that statement and applying it to the current circus we see being played out on our national political stage this year.
I say “played out” for a good reason. I really think this show has had a much longer stage life than it should have. Like a political “Cats” on Broadway, what can start out young and new and fresh will inevitably get long in the tooth and generally stay beyond the point where it’s time to make that final curtain call.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have cast a lot of votes in my lifetime based on who was running in what political party. Many have, many do, and many always will…but that hasn’t always been the case. In some races, especially local races and certain state-level races, I usually vote for the person and not the party they are affiliated with, usually out of an abundance of earned respect that I have for the person and not their party. While I consider myself a Republican, I have voted on occasions for Democrats who have worked for the good of the people over party. I’ve also, on a couple of occasions, been swayed by events that led me to feel that the candidate of my party wasn’t necessarily the best one for the job at the time.
The first Presidential candidate I ever voted for was Ronald Reagan, in the election of 1984, the year I became old enough to vote. Republicans weren’t exactly popular in Georgia during those years. I think quite a few people were disgruntled that Reagan had beaten the only President ever to come out of my home state just four years earlier and it was telling that Georgia was the only state in the South that remained true to its Democratic values in that particular election cycle.
Four years later, I voted for George H.W. Bush. During his presidency, I supported his strong actions in operation Desert Storm but by the end of his term, I felt completely let down by him and his promise of “Read my lips” on the subject of no new taxes. So it was in 1992 that I voted for Bill Clinton, the only time I have ever voted for a Democrat running for President. In contrast to the elder Bush, Clinton seemed young, energetic and full of promise. His speechmaking abilities reminded me of another young Democrat who had held that office, albeit briefly, just 30 years earlier. I had missed out on the whole Kennedy thing by a few years but in Clinton I saw my generation’s “Kennedy” Presidency and I responded to it. While he had his good moments, he was also deeply flawed and that became evident in the years to come. Four years later I was back on my conservative side of the fence and have tried to stay there ever since.
I say all this to make a point, which has become apparent to me in the past few months of what has turned into the most vitriolic presidential primary that I have ever seen. As a young voter, I was a lot more responsive to aspirational ideals than political ideology and I was far more interested in the things that elevated us as a society than I ever was in the nuts and bolts of what made that society work (and by contrast, what prevented it from working).
I responded to the bright optimism and positive attitude of Ronald Reagan and I responded to the soaring rhetoric of Bill Clinton. I believed in Reagan’s “Shining City Upon a Hill” and I have never forgotten Clinton’s assurance that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America”. I think many of my generation can remember being stirred by those words and feeling positive that despite any problems that were going on at the time, there was still considerable greatness left in our Country and that our energies could best be spent finding ways to tap into that greatness for the betterment of our nation.
So much has happened to us since then. The rise of global terrorism, the events of 9/11, shootings and killings in schools, racial strife and protest and the political parties, those who run everything, have forgotten how to tap into what makes us great, choosing instead to focus on what we fear, appealing to our darker instincts and stoking the fires of hatred and distrust. The ideals that we as Americans ascribe to begin to lose focus in the face of such dark forces, weakening a foundation built on individual freedom, inalienable human rights and acceptance of those willing to pay the price for admission to our country through hard work and sacrifice.
I can’t necessarily blame the politicians for all of this. They respond to what the people who elect them believe and when the people began to lose direction, they demanded safety, security and comfort and they elected representatives who would feed them a steady diet of what it was they wanted.
My ancestors, many of whom came here from Scotland and England in the early 1700’s came to America not for the promise of social programs and government assistance…they came here for opportunity that was not available to them in their home countries. They came here because they knew that with hard work and perseverance they could make something of themselves on these shores and that they didn’t have to bow down to anyone to do it. By the same token, I believe that many who want to come here today feel just the same and they don’t mind working hard for it. We have more of our own citizens with their hands out than those who come here looking to better their lives.
If you look far enough back, most Americans are descended from people who came here from other countries. Not everyone came here willingly and that is a truth we live with every day…but they came and together they built a nation from forests, prairies, deserts and mountains into the United States of America. When did we forget who we are and where we came from?
I don’t think that every person from Mexico is a violent criminal, a rapist and a drug lord. Some are but then we have those here in our own country as well. Using a disproportionate few as a condemnation of an entire people and then turning that into a political poker to stoke the fires of prejudice, bigotry and hatred for political gain is about as unpresidential an action as I can imagine. You cannot convince me that in 2016, we don’t have the brainpower, the stamina, the determination and the ability to think our problems through and come up with positive, innovative solutions to them. If building walls and hurling insults is the best we can come up with, then we have failed and failed miserably.
I want leaders that I can respect for their wisdom and not just their wit. I want leaders I can admire for their statesmanship and guardianship of the American ideals and not someone who fans the flames of public opinion into a forest fire of darkness and apprehension. I want leaders who won’t back down to the bullies in the world but I also want leaders who won’t be a bully to others. I want leaders, not just in the White House but in the Congress that will work to keep us safe but not at the expense of our liberties, our privacy, our values and our individuality. Finally, I want a national leader who is compassionate towards others, tolerant of differences and willing to build bridges towards understanding instead of walls of oppression. What I can’t understand is why most people would not want the same.
Several running in this year’s primary exhibited some of those qualities, if not all of them. Most of them were swept aside in the ensuing tidal wave of negative campaigning, their voices of reason lost in the turbulent and stormy waters of a political perfect storm unseen in our lifetimes. The voices of reason are now mostly gone and what we have left is what we will likely have to deal with…and we created this monster when we started moving away from the center of issues…the place where compromise and bipartisanship could work…and off into weeds of the far left or far right. Demagoguery and appeals to populist desires and prejudices have become the watchwords of the day. Suggestions that anyone on the other side that believes differently is un-American isn’t just an occasional thing anymore, it is now the norm.
National leaders who didn’t come right out and say disparaging things about current or previous Presidents certainly didn’t stop others who did, tacitly approving of their actions and then gladly accepting their endorsements and their checkbook. The prevailing belief behind the establishment strategy was that the citizens could be fooled once again, persuaded to vote for their candidacy out of anger against the other side and then largely ignored after the election while the party pursued politics as usual. Out of this bait and switch policy arose candidates who now tell the establishment that they can now have their cake and eat it too and now it is being devoured by the very monster it created.
It is time to dispel one myth: that what has happened in this election is a fluke, an anomaly or just an unforeseeable foray into what should have been an otherwise normal election cycle. That just isn’t the case. By feeding and cultivating the rage and anger of millions of Americans for years now, they have lost control of their most potent weapon and that weapon is now in the hands of people outside the mainstream.
We used to talk about politicians and their supporters that were “out on the fringes”. Is it possible now, that what we have considered for so long to be the mainstream or the middle ground…is now actually on the fringes itself? I hope that isn’t the case because if what we are seeing today is what is now considered to be the new mainstream, then we have bigger things to worry about than walls from the extreme right and socialism from the extreme left. We’d better be worried about our collective national soul.