I’ve never been more worried about our country than now.
At age 78, I’ve seen elections come and go, cultural warfare between the generations wax and wane, and wars, from the Cold to Korea; from Vietnam to the endless ones in the Middle East.
But today, as we face this election, I cannot avoid the growing dark fear that something is going very, very wrong at the core of our country’s way of governing itself.
It’s not just that the political system has served up to us two of the most damaged candidates in living memory. That’s worrisome enough, in that it suggests people who should know better failed to exercise their positions and safeguards, and worse, activate their collective experience in selecting nominees to run our country.
More of my worry has to do with the yawning chasm between our people over what should be something easy to define:
Simply put: What is a fact?
Looking at the political ads on TV, reading the posts on Facebook and listening to candidates’ speeches give me the impression that we’re living in separate universes, where the general understanding of fact is eclipsed by ideology, politics and media.
Some in the talking head “commentariat” have taken to babbling about a “post-fact” model of discourse, suggesting a fact-based discussion is impossible or even that facts themselves are unknowable. Listening to today’s political arguments brings abruptly to mind the old adage that “a person is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not one’s own facts.” When we cannot even agree on the facts, how on earth can we possibly have a reasonable discussion of politics, policy or even governance for all our citizens?
For a lot of this, much is to blame on the rise of social media in a politically polarized environment. Back when I was growing up, we had the great national professional TV news networks to help us to collective understanding of what was fact and what was not.
When Walter Cronkite signed off his evening newscast with “and that’s the way it is,” he was doing us all a service far beyond the bounds of his television program. He was laying down a common basis of understanding, a set of factual meets and bounds within which to conduct reasoned discussion and, yes, of course, argument.
But today we have a vociferous social media accompanied by legions of “politicotainers” (radio talk show hosts, TV pitchmen masquerading as news professionals, and carefully contrived advocates for special interests) all pulverizing the world of fact, often for no reason other than to raise money from true believers.
Compound that with the reality that anybody with a laptop in hand is now a publisher -- but that almost nobody is an editor -- and you have a recipe for literally large amounts of babble.
On top of that, this campaign has brought with it wholesale coarsening and degradation of what used to be generally accepted standards of civilized public political discourse. We now have the commonplace use of the epithet “crooked” used when referring to an opponent. One candidate for president actually incites supporters to cry “Lock her up!” during campaign rallies.
Some of this is so because it’s easier to call somebody a nasty name at an impersonal distance (as on talk radio or when flaming somebody on social media) than it is face to face. But if this election has achieved anything, it’s lowering beyond recognition the standards of civilized address between adults.
You know things have gone too far when my son, Scott, watches TV with my granddaughters, aged 10 and 12, and has to struggle to fudge what the candidates are saying and why well-brought up children should avoid talking that way. Some of what the Republican presidential nominee has said or been videotaped saying is beyond anyone’s boundaries of civilized behavior.
As I reflect on what this lengthy, degrading campaign has done to our common political and social culture, I’m forced to conclude it has, worst of all, articulated at bottom that ultimately horrible basis for ethical blasphemy: That the end justifies the means.
Don’t like a possible new president picking a nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court? So, regardless of what the Constitution calls for, we will obstruct any nomination.
Don’t like a possible outcome? So we warn endlessly about voter fraud and rigged elections, thereby jeopardizing the integrity of our core political process, now and for the future. Some even justify no functioning national government at all in order to prevent those with whom they disagree from winning the contest.
Where in all this claptrap is the duty to assure the broadly acceptable governance of the country that underlies and legitimizes our entire political process? Winston Churchill used to say that, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Fair enough. But, I’m beginning to harbor dark thoughts that the way we Americans are conducting our version of democracy is no longer an effective, just or moral political system. People – right, left, center – are disgusted with what they are seeing.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they didn’t rise wholesale to change things when this campaign’s disgraceful nonsense is over.
Matter of fact, someone needs to.