Frayed political culture is frightening

In the days after Sept. 11, our nation came together in a way it hadn’t in years, in common shock and anger and resolution.

Strangers greeted each other while standing in line at the supermarket. Families reached out to hold each other in grief and gratitude for safe passage. Partisan quarrels that had seemed earth-shaking suddenly dissolved into constructive discussions.

But since then?

Sadly, our spirit of unity seems long ago indeed.

We have stumbled into two wars that cost us around $1 billion a day, financed (if you call it that) by the biggest tax cut in American history and deficit spending. They are accompanied by a vast and omnivorous growth in entitlement programs.

Our economy teeters on the brink of another recession, the victim of a financial industry for which greed became the only morality. Our politics have worsened and coarsened.

Some Democrats today truly believe Republicans intend to pitch us into a double-dip recession for the partisan purpose of defeating President Obama. Some Republicans really seem to believe the policies of the Obama administration are socialistic, if not close to communist.
And this is what scares me -- not al-Qaida or the fundamentalist fanatics or the pitiful successors to Osama bin Laden. What frightens me is the progressive breakdown of the things that used to hold us together: our shared values, our commitment to the nation, our civic life, our national conversation.

We redistrict by gerrymandering our legislative and congressional districts in a way guaranteed to foster extremism on both the left and the right. We turn our political discourse into a series of degrading and silly insults, as when we refer to Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” accuse the chairman of the Federal Reserve of “treason” in using monetary policy to encourage growth and call followers to “take out” our political opponents.

We treat our politics as a combination of a blood sport crossed with a food fight staged by teenagers in a high school cafeteria. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks Coffee Co., put it this way in full-page newspaper ads last week:

“I am very concerned that at times I do not recognize the America that I love. Like so many of you, I am deeply disappointed by the pervasive failure of leadership in Washington. And also like you, I am frustrated by our political leaders’ steadfast refusal to recognize that, for every day they perpetuate partisan conflict and put ideology over country, America and Americans suffer from the combined effects of paralysis and uncertainty.”

Former State Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, gets it. Melton, who just resigned his seat in the Michigan House of Representatives to work for StudentsFirst, a national education reform organization, last week urged his former colleagues to be “fearless” in being willing to work on both sides of the aisle, while maintaining self-respect.

“When I came here, I said I’m not going to change who I am, and I’m not going to do things just to get re-elected. I’m going to do the right thing and make sure that message gets out to people. If I can defend what I’m doing then, I think the people respect that," he explained.

Read that again: “I’m not going to do things just to get re-elected.” With politicians generally at historic lows in public approval, Melton’s notion that he won’t do silly things just to get re-elected sounds almost quaint, the echo of a time long gone by.

To be sure, Melton was term-limited in his legislative seat, and didn’t have any immediate prospects for election anywhere after his term expired next year. But he deserves our admiration and respect for setting out the way to rediscover common ground in our society and our politics, the ground we lost over the past decade.

My old friend, former state senator and Congressman Joe Schwarz, visited me last week. He is a moderate Republican, just as Melton was a moderate Democrat. Schwarz’s comment to me was: “Why can’t the sensible, moderate majority of Americans speak out loud and clear against the crazy people of both left and right who insist – self-righteously – on killing our country?”

I can’t agree with -- and don’t want to bring myself to agree with -- the Chinese diplomat who told me last year that “America is entering the terminal phase of its historic decline because your politics cannot make serious decisions timely and make them stick.”

But I never have been so worried about our country.

Still, the Tim Meltons and Joe Schwarzes give me the will to keep fighting -- and the confidence that, in the long run, what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature“ will prevail.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at


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Tue, 09/13/2011 - 9:11am
Phil Power----always on point.
Tue, 09/13/2011 - 9:46am
It has seemed to me for years that 80 to 90% of us all want similar things in our lives, but are far too often mislead by the extremes on both the far right and the far left! It is time to get back to our core values and learn to live together without such polarizing distractions!
Milton Mack
Wed, 09/14/2011 - 2:15pm
As Phil correctly points our, we have a "structural deficit" in our democratic processes.