I was hoping to publish a New York Times best seller this year, but now I’m too late to get it out in time for the presidential campaign. I had the title and everything: Rush Limbaugh, Hillary Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, Teddy Kennedy, George Bush and the Lying Idiots Who Hate Them. The prospective subtitle was, A Fair and Balanced Account.
It would have been a sure hitfive of the most polarizing figures in American politics and media, the cleverly understated hook phrase lying idiots and then the delicious word hate. I, of course, would be above it all with my own balanced fairness.
Hold on to your hard hats. It will be a polarizing campaign season. The Democratic candidates themselves are so polarized that their leading contender, Howard Dean, has complained about the ideological mugging he has received from the also-rans. He’s right. If he gets nominated, all the Republicans will have to do is run clips of other Democrats questioning his sanity and impugning his character. The only other highlights of the tedious debates have been provided by Al Sharpton, a true orator and entertainer. He is not only the smartest of the lot; but since he has nothing to lose, he is the most honest in unmasking the pretenses of both political parties. Perhaps the saddest figure is Dennis Kucinich. In many ways an old-style labor Democrat, his major conversion this year seems to be the fact that he has become vegetarian and pro-choice at the same time. The once pro-life Democrat now goes meatless and votes against the ban on partial-birth abortions. That’s called evolving as a candidate.
It might well be the case that no matter whom the Democrats nominate, the sitting president will win in November.
Any presidential incumbent should have an automatic advantage in this country. The United States has the mightiest military in the world, and it also has the strongest economy. If both of these assets yield positive outcomes, it is hard to imagine anyone defeating President George Bush. So the war in Iraq and the economy at home will be decisive.
They are also the most polarizing issues. And the danger of our public discourse will be that the extreme poles of opinion will, like magnets, pull the discussion over military and monetary policies away from the center of thoughtful debate. It takes little acumen to gather from the Internet, cable programs like C-SPAN and various talk shows that there are significant minorities of hardened and extreme opinion in this country. It all comes down to a choice of demons.
On one account, there are only angels in America. We are the best and brightest, the envy of the world as well as its savior. The demons are not only the famed axis of evil and their fellow travelers, but also anyone who calls American exceptionalism into question. Thus, if you opposed the pre-emptive war in Iraq, this really means that you actually wanted Saddam Hussein to continue his atrocities. If you question the wisdom of occupying the country, you are against our men and women in uniform. If you raise the troubling economic inequities in our own country as well as the world, you are un-American. If you challenge the invasive settlements, demeaning occupation and dividing walls of Israel, you are accused of sympathizing with suicide-murderers.
The opposite position is just as extreme and dogmatic. On this account, the Great Evil is America itself and George Bush is the demon-in-chief. In softer versions, the president just serves as an object of ridicule. In the harder versions, he is either a dupe of manipulative power brokers or a would-be world dictator. It is not only in the cafes of Europe that opinion can be found that deems the United States a greater threat to world peace than China or North Korea. In some American quarters, if you point out that great good may come to Iraq and the world by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, you are judged a jingoist. If you hold that George Bush’s Thanksgiving Day journey to Baghdad was both courageous and creative, you are deemed an American toady. If you try to suggest that for all its many faults, a democratic form of capitalism may well be the most effective instrument for improving the lot of humankind, you are suspected of wanting to rape the earth.
The magnetic extremism of debate prevents any real thought. Everything gravitates to the pull of unquestioned political dogma. What is lost in this ideological tug of war, however, is the possibility of true reform, whether it be of political parties or of the United States itself. If we Americans succeed in demonizing those who oppose us, we will never have to face our own sinfulness. And if we think we are sinless, we are not only fools. We will be in danger of becoming the menace our enemies suppose us to be.
A hardened national ideology is mirrored in the extremes of rigid party politics. You are either with us or against us: Our party, right or wrong. In such an atmosphere, both parties make themselves immune to self-evaluation or critique. Republicans will never be free to examine the high moral costs of unbridled consumerism and capitalism. Democrats will never be free to wonder if Save the Children slogans could be applied to those nonentities who used to be called unborn babies.
If our political parties allow themselves to be reduced to the repetition of polarizing slogans, someone will still get elected in November. Our much-touted freedom and democracy, however, will lose.