What I found interesting at the State of the Union address last week in addition to what President Obama had to say were the visuals. On the dais behind Obama, sat Vice-President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. They provided a study in contrasts: Biden upbeat and engaged; Ryan dour and disconnected. One optimistic; the other doubtful, even pessimistic. You would have thought the opposite what have been true given their ages, a spread wide enough to be father and son.
A picture worth more than a thousand words.
Much print and talk has been dedicated to the breakdown of comity between the two major parties to the point it is no longer news. Obama took dead aim at it.
“Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens,” he said. “It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.”
In his State of the State address to the Colorado legislature, Governor Hickenlooper echoed that theme when he pleaded with the members to work together in a collaborative fashion.
“In today’s politics,” he said, “we revel in getting our way without giving an inch, and stopping the other guy from getting anything done. We’ve made these the only things that count as wins. And the American people lose. This ‘you’re either with us or against us’ mentality hurts our state and our country, and it undermines our democracy.”
Both men nailed the problem. But we cannot dump all the blame at the door of our political leaders for one simple reason: It begins with us, we the people.
In a letter to the Courant a couple of weeks ago, a letter writer began by stating, “Everyone in county government, whether elected officials, wannabes, management, or rank-and-file employees, needs to ask this simple question: ‘Am I part of the problem or the solution.’”
First he created a strawman—everyone from the road crews and staff to the leaders—then went on to knock it down, all without validity or proof.
And therein lies the greater problem. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The greatest threat to our democracy is not and will never come from the outside. It will unravel only if we come apart, and we are.
Let me paraphrase the letter writer’s statement:
Everyone American citizen, whether rich, middle-income, or working poor, black, brown, white or some skin tone between, of faith or not, of high or low intellect, left-brained or right-brained, needs to ask him/herself one simple question: Am I part of the problem or am I part of the solution by being positively engaged by offering constructive criticism and taking a problem-solving, collaborative approach to the great issues in front of us.
A vibrant democracy depends upon an active citizenry that speaks their truth to power. But it also depends on doing so in with a respectful tone, not demeaning or castigating political opponents or government workers and elected officials as devils incarnate. Attacking others, broad-brushing them as nefarious types looking out only for themselves not only does not contribute to a sound body politic; it undermines it. And when that happens, fascism is the inevitable result.
What to do? Use your head and speak with it, not with your emotions. Turn off the “angry voices” that Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) spoke about in her Republican response to the President’s speech. Quit personalizing.
Those on the right, for example, need to stop looking at government as the Evil Empire, and those on the left need to stop seeing corporations as collectively making up an alternative evil universe.
“What I’m asking for is hard,” Obama admitted. “It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.”
The President is not asking that we abandon our work to bring about change that we believe needs to happen. It’s called participatory democracy. But it can be done respectfully. In the end, after all, we’re still all Americans and neighbors.