After bitter campaign, dark days for the Republic

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 11/08/2016 - 7:54am
It's worse than that, we can't even agree on what is a manifest reality, even our President those of his persuasion, can't bring themselves to declare whether the existence of XX or XY chromosomes and the associated details means male or female. Major candidates think that the 2nd amendment doesn't say what it absolutely says, but there is a right to free college education and free abortions sitting therein. Speaking of reality, since you brought it up, Phil, please point out where is the US constitution it stipulates that we must have 9 Supreme court justices. (Hint, It doesn't.)
Jim Vollmers
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:09am
Matt, While the US Constitution established the Supreme Court, it was left to congress to determine the number of justices that would serve at any given time. It has been set at nine members since 1869 by an act of congress. It's the constitutional duty of the president to nominate those judges (he has) and the constitutional duty of the senate to confirm those nominations (they haven't).
Michigan Observer
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 6:26pm
Mr. Vollmers is mistaken when he says, " It’s the constitutional duty of the president to nominate those judges (he has) and the constitutional duty of the senate to confirm those nominations (they haven’t)." There is no constitutional duty to confirm a president's nominee. Remember Robert Bork? And as I recall, there have been nominees withdrawn when it became obvious they would not be confirmed.
Wed, 11/09/2016 - 6:30am
It is the president's constitutional duty to nominate, and the Senate's duty to give the nominee a hearing. The nominee may be denied, for any number of valid reasons, but he/she should at least be given a hearing. Not to do so is an insult to the nominee as well as an insult to our Constitution and the Laws of this country.
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 9:19am
“and that’s the way it is,” Speaking of facts Phil, you accurately track the hackneyed NYT/TE/CNN/PBS line, but have you heard much about the Clintons' stealing $190,000 of furniture, paintings, silverware and rugs from the White House as they departed in 2000? Or of Hillary's $100,000 gain in cattle's futures? Thieving and bribe taking seem to be crimes worthy of indictment, conviction and imprisonment. The Trump rallies got it right and voters will respond. Is truth telling an affront in your world? I'm not voting for either major party candidate, I'm a libertarian to the core, and must tell you that getting information and practicing honesty is far easier with the fragmented internet than with " great national professional TV news networks to help us to collective understanding of what was fact and what was not." The "collective", hmmmm....Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer! Not good. Mark Twain said, “If you don’t read the papers you’re uninformed. If you do read them, you’re misinformed.” You really should come out of your parochial elitist shell and try to relate better to the millions in midstate MIchigan who have diminished lives under the politically correct regimes in the last 30 years. They will come out in droves to declare their anger and frustration with the pompous pretenders who instruct us that using blunt language is worse than theft, bribery, and selling her office in million dollar increments to third world despots.
Marvin Roberson
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 9:45am
Phil is correct - it used to be that we agreed on facts, but disagreed on whether those facts constituted a problem, and if so, what to do about them. Facts are facts, actions to address those facts are political. However, today's Republicans often do not even want to discuss the "what, if anything, to do about the facts" question, so they simply deny the facts, and make reality itself the politicized discussion. For instance - the globe is warming. That's a fact. Whether that is caused by humans, and if so, what (if anything) we can or should do about it, are all legitimate topics for political discussion. However, today's Right simply denies the very FACT that the globe is warming. See the above comments for examples.
Le Roy Barnett
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 9:59am
Phil Power refers to the current situation as being so bad we can't even agree on what is a "fact." Erwin Haas proves him right by saying that the Clintons stole $190,000 worth of goods from the White House when they left office. A look at SNOPES will quickly reveal the incorrect status or exaggerated nature of this statement, but I doubt if this will stop Mr. Haas or his philosophical kin from peddling this version of what supposedly happened back then.
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 10:02am
The first two comments are perfect examples of the problem. Rather than addressing the issue(s) put forward by Mr. Powers we read two rants that miss the point entirely. They either misrepresent basic information or only interested in trying to prove how correct they are. They do nothing to address the problem(s) or help solve them. The world is filled with problem finders but we suffer from a critical shortage of problem solvers. Believe it or not to solve a problem you actually have to sit down and discuss the issue. Then present some reasonable options and be willing to accept that the other side may have legitimate concerns or solutions and listen (God forbid you would have to do that!) to them as well. I agree with Mr. Powers we are in deep trouble with little evidence we will find a way out of it.
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 10:04am
Hmmm, what's the definition of "is" Phil? How could such a simple two letter word be used by a president to obstruct and deflect justice? So when Walter Cronkite said "that's the way it is" at the end of his newscasts, everyone knew what "is" meant. How could a president twist such a simple word that Uncle Walter used every day to assure us that what he was saying was true? What changed from Cronkite's "is" to Bill Clinton's "is?" Money, power, influence, bribes, sexual scandals, you know, all the exciting stuff that Walter Cronkite wasn't. All of that stuff went on before and during Cronkite's time as a newsman, but Americans favored the truth and knew what the truth was. But politicians and the media changed the minds of Americans by teaching that the truth can be bent, twisted, and manipulated to fit your own personal selfish and narcissistic agenda. America is no longer about "we" but about "me, me, me and me."
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 10:16am
This election has exposed our growing hypocrisy as an electorate. We embrace the fundamental principals of democracy when the benefit us as individuals. We support the freedom of religion if it's our religion and the separation of church and state for all of the churches other than our own. We claim to support racial equality, but we work hard to explain how repressive policies and exclusionary tactics are actually better ways to foster equality. We believe in one-man-one-vote, but we make it very difficult for those who are not cut from the same cloth as we are to vote. We allow our elections and our officials to be bought by the rich and powerful and our voting districts to be carved out in such a way as to essentially create safe one-party zones. We are too lazy to separate the wheat from the chaff of the political fodder we are fed by the myriad sources of information. We are quick to label and accuse and blame, but we find it very difficult to truly listen and discuss and understand anyone who hold opinions different than our own. Even when our candidate or party is democratically defeated ,and this is a cause for great fear for our future as a great nation, we refuse to accept the legitimacy of our own constitutional process. Instead we refuse to join our fellow citizens on th vehicle they've selected, and we sabotage the bus so that it won't function. Then we all sit motionless for four years while our acrimony grows in the hope that after four miserable years we can pick a different vehicle. I still believe that our country is the greatest nation state in human history. I believe there may be some event or leader who can help restore our sense of oneness again, but it won't be easy. No matter which presidential candidate or party wins today, I hope the other doesn't resolve to use all of the time between Election Day and the next cycle to plot the demise of their opponent. Sadly, I think that is what will happen and what far too many expect and support.
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:23pm
It is with great disappointment and regret that I must say you are absolutely correct in your observations. Significant observation...thanks for expressing it so well.
Ann schriber
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 4:02pm
TJ and Joyce, Beautifully stated and heartbreaking. It is terrifying to think that the Republicans are already saying they will not entertain a Supreme Court candidate if their presidential candidate doesn't win. When one of our two parties refuses to negotiate and discuss, how can we hope to go forward? We got an email from a French friend who says the Europeans are very concerned about what is happening to us. I am too! Ann
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 5:43pm
Ann - Who told the Republicans back in 2009 and 2010, "I won, you lost, get over it!" None other than the current resident of the White House. But you failed to mention that piece of information. That didn't concern you one bit back then?
Michigan Observer
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 9:19pm
TJ's comments are a mixed bag. He is absolutely right when he says, "This election has exposed our growing hypocrisy as an electorate. We embrace the fundamental principals of democracy when the benefit us as individuals." We have very few individuals who are sufficiently endowed with the civic virtues. Not many people are willing to sacrifice their immediate, particular interests to any significant degree for the sake of the long-term common good. Too many people's principal consideration is "How do I get the rest of the community to pay for what I want?" During the recent public safety millage election in Wayne, Michigan, one woman wondered why the citizens of Wayne were expected to bear the burden of paying for their police and fire services. And I have seen comment in the Canton paper that subdivision streets should be a local, state and federal issue. Really? But he is mistaken when he says, "We believe in one-man-one-vote, but we make it very difficult for those who are not cut from the same cloth as we are to vote." He should check his calendar. Those practices were all too common at one time, but that day is long past. There are tens of thousands of black officials all across the country. He is correct when he says, " We are too lazy to separate the wheat from the chaff of the political fodder we are fed by the myriad sources of information." It is certainly the case that most people are not willing to invest sufficient time and energy in understanding the complexities of this world. Unfortunately, as the late economist Mancur Olson pointed out, that is a perfectly rational (although destructive) attitude. The benefits of such an investment will benefit everyone equally, while all the costs will be borne by the few individuals who made the investment of resources. Those costs outweigh their share of the benefits.
Jim Vollmers
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 10:31am
I was sad to read the first two posts as they are perfect examples to which Mr. Powers is alluding. I only hope that there are enough rational individuals, that are willing to discuss issues with civility and respect, that we might again ascribe to a government that can seek compromise and find common ground in order to serve the citizenry of our great nation. Our elected leaders need to demonstrate the behavior that they'd like their constituents to emulate. I may be crazy and that's already what they're doing.
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:01am
First Black President. First Woman President. A goodly place to be. I am proud to be an American.
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:16am
Black? He's half black and half white. An African father and an American mother of various European descents. Isn't the politically correct term multi-racial? If his mother was of Asian descent, would he be labeled Asian? Why do you say black? Because that's what you've been told without thinking about it yourself.
Nick Ciaramitaro
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:44am
Unlike most of the world, this nation clings to the racist "one drop" rule.
Kevin Grand
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 3:53pm
Hmmm, interesting hypothesis. Now, would you please let us know what the color of your skin or what genitalia has to do with the ability to actually lead?
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:34am
The situation has clearly deteriorated although the historical record does show that vituperation and elections were also common in earlier days. What has made the current scene much worse is the advent enhanced propaganda, e.g.,hate radio (we have a local example that airs malevolent loonies from dawn to the wee hours) and the rise of the internet replete with crazies (e.g, Breitbart). Trump has found something in our DNA that looks for glib answers to complex problems, often associated with a call for violence. There are many problems in the US, some related to the loss of good jobs and a population increase of over 100 million since the 1940s. The answer is not necessarily more pollution, less government, more power to the oligarchs, vilification and/or prison for opponents, more wars and less education. We shall soon see whether pleas for divisiveness will be successful.
Nick Ciaramitaro
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:42am
Two additional observations that go along with Phil's basic premise: (1) newscasters should make clear whether they are "reporting" or "commentating" and then stick to one or the other. (2) We need to relearn how to disagree without being disagreeable. It's not easy but is the heart of civility. The rise of cable news has resulted in so-called newscasts that are directed to their own ideology. That mean that we not only lose civility in many of those newscasts which are really commentary but people only listening to their own side of the argument. Its give and take that makes debate worthwhile. Reinforcing your own beliefs is nice but not debate.
Michigan Observer
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 9:37pm
I have an alternative to Mr. Ciaramitaro's suggestion that "newscasters should make clear whether they are “reporting” or “commentating” and then stick to one or the other. " What if they simply stated what side of the issue they favored. That would allow their audience to appropriately discount what they had to say.
Jean Howard
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 11:50am
Thanks Phil for another thought provoking article!
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:00pm
Thanks Phil and to the commenters who so clearly demonstrated exactly what you were talking about.
John Q. Public
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:03pm
This sounds less like a lament on the demise of fact-driven discourse and more like one on the loss of the oligopoly of who gets to determine the facts, and once determined, which are released for public consumption. Editors don't just choose to publish only what is true; they also choose not to publish other things, even if they, too, are true. That, more than any one other cause, explains the rise of the fifth estate. Many more of us than Phil thinks agree on what a fact is . The large--and growing--chasm, at least as it relates to facts about government, governing, and those who thus reap their livelihoods, is, "To whom are the facts available, and when?" If one medium won't provide them, people will gravitate to another which does. I disagree with most of the column, but nowhere as much as here: "I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they didn’t rise wholesale to change things when this campaign’s disgraceful nonsense is over." I'd be shocked beyond--I can't even articulate it--if that were to happen. Even if it does, those who profit from the existing system are not just going to stand idly by and take it. Peoples' appetites for revolution last until their favorite sports team gets on a roll, and people who pay attention to politics generally underestimate by a factor of at least five the number of fellow citizens who couldn't care less.
Barry Visel
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:11pm
I believe we are a Republic, not a Democracy. The difference may explain how we got to where we are. (Hint: Our Federal government has grown way beyond what our Constitution provides for, and our elected officials and Supreme Court have allowed this to happen).
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:47pm
You are absolutely right Phil, our culture and our politics have degraded substantially. But it’s not because we cannot separate fact from opinion, it’s because truth is now relative. We can blame our public education system, which is filled with progressives, for most of this. Kids today are taught that science has the facts and everything else is just opinion – and all opinions are equally valid. There are no such things as moral truths any more. Your buddy Tom Hayden and all the stupid hippies from the 60s started the ball rolling on this. Why doesn’t The Bridge live up to what it claims – “Bridge’s journalism will be fact-based and will respect the good sense of our readers.” The only “facts” The Bridge presents are those developed by folks on the left. You are also right that there was a time the MSM news reports were respected – it was when journalists reported the news and didn’t lean right or left when they did so. Shoulder your share of the blame for the sad state of affairs in our country Phil.
David Werner
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 12:50pm
Thank you Phil for a very thought provoking article. I suppose I say thank you because I agree with you. Over my adult lifetime I have observed the decline of a common value system in our country. The current presidential election is just such an example. We could spend hours attempting to lay blame. However, who is at fault no longer really matters. Laying blame will not redirect us, it will not do anything to pull us out of this downward spiral. Unfortunately, I do not have the confidence that, as a country, we can come together and work to restore the health of our nation. Certainly, given the will of the people to be right at all cost, to make no compromise and to place all individual needs above a collective need, we have created a path of destruction without any avenue of return. Our history as a great nation is over.
Inara Kurt
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 1:25pm
Thank you Phil and Bridge Magazine for your rational and civil discourse. I agree with Jean. Your article is thought provoking and demands introspection from all of us.
Kevin Grand
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 4:24pm
"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."Mr. Power is missing the forest for the trees. Those "politicotainers", as he aptly describes them, are what passes for news professionals nowadays. Considering the number of news stories that have been spiked, I'm honestly surprised that the media has the level of credibility that it currently has. Where is the coverage of how a political power couple who were literally at the door of the local almshouse one minute, and the next, were in charge of a multi-million dollar "foundation"? Where is the coverage of the federal takeover of our nations health insurance industry along with the resulting damage directly because of it (i.e. companies dropping out of the market, rising rates, rising deductibles, doctors leaving the profession)? Why is anything from Wikileaks considered a taboo topic, even though one of the candidates for president had not challenged the authenticity of its contents as recently as the last presidential debate? Does anyone honestly believe that it is possible to accurately ascertain the legality of over one half-million e-mails is approximately one week? And without leaving this page and doing a keyword search, can anyone (even Mr. Power) tell me who MM1 Kristian Saucier is? If you want to be worried about anything, your focus ought to be there.
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 5:12pm
I would say that the big media networks of Cronkite's day constantly played with the facts to suit their agenda - and it is exactly what has led to the mess we're in.... the difference is that now there is a counter to the one-sided presentation of the "news". Doubt me? Just go back and look at the coverage of the Vietnam war and the protests for a perfect example Besides that, this is more of a hit piece against one particular candidate and group than any actual balanced look at what's going on... Phil's just piling on the divide. The bridge is irreconcilable as neither side agrees or can even see the flaws their own side is making. Just looking at the comments here from the partisans on both sides is proof enough that the country is broken. The end is coming to these currently united states, probably in the next 4-8 years, as states seek to divorce themselves of the cesspool that Washington politics has become
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 6:29pm
There can be no freedom without freedom of the press. While I agree with you as to the state we are in, I feel that ‘the media’ cannot be held faultless. The only reporting I saw even close to being objective, concerning the presidential candidate’s stands on issues was in the Michigan Farm Bureau newsletter. We have become a nation enthralled with violence and negativity. While we used to play cowboys and Indians, and we were still friends when we went home for dinner, preschoolers now are playing video games where they blow things up and there is no compassion or empathy involved. Does the media have no responsibility for the welfare of the nation? Perhaps there is no legal responsibility for the media to rise about the National Enquirer type reporting, but the news today of Prince Harry’s justifiable disgust at the media’s handling of his relationship with a young woman – if you recall it was the same idiocy which cost the life of his mother. The media needs to stop being garbage trucks and dumping all the garbage they so desperately search for on the public. Garbage in – garbage out
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 7:47pm
Mr. Power, I am disappointed and saddened by your giving up on the process that gave liberty to the world and that we are still using today over 200 years after it was created. I am disappointed that someone that has so benefited from the election process, to willingly walk away when they are now frustrated. What we are seeing is a frustration built over generations of people who have trusted in the system and are now letting that frustration loose on the system because the elected officials have not delivered results, people haven’t given up. It seems that the public who has been ignored for so long, they are now being vocal in venting their disappointments and that is making this election messy, but if they are still participating then we should all reaffirm our trust in the system. I am saddened that someone who has created a means to help the voters make more informed choices will not use those means to engage the public in developing a guidepost for voters to use when assessing and choosing candidates, a guidepost for candidates to measure themselves against to see if they are what is needed in elective office. I read on Bridge this past week some ideas on political conflict of interest voiced by a commenter that seemed to be something all voters/candidates /officials could use when assessing candidates/elected officials/themselves, I wish that commenter would have been encouraged to describe the ideas in a boarder way so it could be made into a tool voters could use in future elections. Bridge could be that means to establish other such criteria by asking the readers for their ideas, and have structured conversations to distill and define those criteria so the public could use them to become better informed in future elections. Rather than give up on the system, put aside your political frustration, and turn to the readers to help build a better informed voter and change the campaign tactics and even the nature of candidates. If Bridge was created to make a better informed reader, if you respect your readers, why not ask and listen to them to help make voters better informed?
Wed, 11/09/2016 - 6:41am
Thank you for a most thoughtful article. I said as much more times than I can count. It's been next to impossible to find the facts because of all the rhetoric thrown around without deep discussion. Even when a whole or partial "fact" is presented, it is often taken out of context and given a much different meaning than was initially intended. People are being degraded, policies misrepresented, facts skewed, etc. to present one side as more perfect than the other. And we know that life is not perfect. I am most concerned about how hard it is to sort through the nonsense to find out what is really true. As someone said not long ago, news has become entertainment and entertainment has become news. I also am worried about the future of my grandchildren with a "leader" who projects such hatred towards others who are not like him. This is not what the United States stands for.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 12:35pm
There has always been a variety of facts that people choose to believe. Lies, damn lies, and statistics. When we had only 3 networks and the AP in charge of facts, the possibility of abuse was much greater. Now we can choose our sources of facts, which may make it more difficult to ascertain the facts, but at least all the shades of facts are out there. It may be confusing, but you choose. "The fact of the matter is" is where the confusion begins. The reason we have a republic and not a democracy is because our founding fathers didn't trust those uneducated common folks. But I too worry about the lack of civility and am concerned about the effects on minorities.