These harsh realities are what they are, and what they always will be. But why does today’s politics feel different? Because it is.
Today’s politics are ugly, childish, embarrassing, you name it—pick any negative word—with anonymous and self-serving op-eds, tell-all books, lies, insults, hyperbole and manufactured anger. Even our children know that two wrongs don’t make a right, but we are fed a daily dose of immature “Oh, yeah, you are worse” schoolyard antics nonetheless. Absolute loyalty to the party and the party platform is demanded, or else. Senators Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain are proof that Republicans will eat their own if they break ranks from the party platform. Democrats may be better, but only on the margin.
And the nation’s mood is no better. We are badly divided, rabid in our support of our political opinions, certain that “my” party is right, and highly unlikely to consider any alternative except total capitulation by the “other side.” The new political mantra? “Just win, baby, at all costs.” Change the rules of the game, mid-game, if necessary. Nothing short of winning is acceptable, even if it means supporting policies that may not be in the country’s best interests.
The battle for control over the levers of governmental power is not new. Politics has never been for the timid. But today’s politics are a historical anomaly—the levels of hateful vitriol, extreme partisanship, and distrust are palpable, and exacerbated by social media and modern modes of communication that allow disseminators of disinformation to hide in Russia, or in plain sight. Unless civility returns, unexpectedly, this is sadly the new norm of political discourse.
There is nothing new, however, about the dangers of political power, especially unchecked power and its potential for abuse. In the history of America, and the world for that matter, the examples are many where the pendulum of power swung significantly and those in power ignored the rule of law, institutional norms, the rights of minorities, and common decency. Sadly, the world suffered for it. Just ask the Jews, or blacks, or women, or ethnic and religious minorities—the list is endless. Never in the history of the human race has unbalanced power moved the world to a higher consciousness of enlightenment.
Let that last thought steep for a moment. Absolute power, or power unchecked, has never advanced the fundamental values of justice, equal protection of the laws, or even human dignity. Never, ever. Why? Because power, and its close cousin, money, corrupts, perhaps not immediately, but eventually. Whenever power has consolidated into the hands of too few, their power became corrosive. Ultimately, their power and their façade of “legitimacy” imploded. Adolf Hitler comes immediately to mind. Hopefully, for the sake of their oppressed countrymen, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and others like them will soon suffer the same fate.
However, the potential for abuse is not the only inherent risk—power also protects itself. Once in power, those in power tend to take whatever measures are necessary, regardless of optics or damage to democratic institutions, to preserve and protect their power. Again, this is not an earth-shattering revelation. In the U.S., both major political parties first fight for power by manipulating the election process and public perception, fairly and unfairly, with or without honor, to their maximum advantage. Then, upon being elected, they immediately circle the political wagons to retain their party’s power and to secure their re-election. The last “white hat” in politics was perhaps George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, and even that is debatable. These harsh realities are what they are, and what they always will be. But why does today’s politics feel different? Because it is.
THE MAKING OF A POLITICAL MOLOTOV COCKTAIL
Our country is at a uniquely dangerous intersection in history—a highly volatile confluence of unbalanced power, fear, disregard for norms and the rule of law, and loyalty to political party even over truth. Those who follow the stock market are familiar with the term “triple witching.” The catch-phrase refers to the simultaneous expiration of certain options and indexes on the third Friday of each quarter. The phenomenon causes, or can cause, volatile swings in the market. American politics is in a similar “triple witching” cycle, but the impact is beyond financial. The impact is at a granular level of human dignity that tests our nation’s morals and democratic institutions.
The first of the three “witches” is not new, but it is front and center yet again at an extreme. Perhaps the only power more corrosive than money, or power for power’s sake, is the exercise of power driven by primal fear or existential fear that access to the very levers of power are at stake. In years past, we confronted similar fears, such as the fear of the Soviet Union, communism, and McCarthyism in the 1950s. The American way was at stake, or so McCarthy led the public to believe. That existential fear, stoked by McCarthy and others, destroyed many, many lives before public opinion, and the politically powerful, turned against the national nightmare. But McCarthyism only became politically toxic for the powerful when public opinion gave them political cover. Until then, the phrase “speak truth to power” had no political spine. They were gutless. Congress, are you listening?
At the center of today’s primal fear is the threat to the power status quo posed by the decades-long ripple effect of immigration. The browning of America is inevitable even if all immigration, legal and illegal, ceased today forever. Put simply, the time is fast coming, regardless of our immigration policies, when those who historically enjoyed the privileges that come with power will be outnumbered at the ballot box. Power will no longer pass from privileged elite class of largely white Republicans to privileged elite class of largely white Democrats. It is a virtual certainty. Power will ultimately pass to all Americans. In this sense, the perceived threat is fake. The threat is neither existential, nor primal, because political power is not owned by the privileged under our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Power is shared by all.
Nonetheless, certain elements in society, who comprise minority percentages within both major parties, are in denial. They cling to the past—and rather than compete or embrace the unifying moral values that bind all Americans together, those in power who share their perspective seek to exclude and divide out of self-protection. No doubt that terrorism and illegal immigration are legitimate potential threats to public safety, but the degree of the threat need not cause us to abandon our moral DNA. Immigration and terrorism are the modern-day equivalent to McCarthyism. Do we need to learn the lesson, again? Hopefully not. We can honor our sacred heritage, and simultaneously protect the public’s safety. The concepts are not incompatible if balanced carefully and respectfully.
But for so long as the powerful underestimate the intelligence of the powerless, the public justifications for the exercise of primal power will never be totally transparent. Parts of the Trump narrative are true—such as the need to protect against terrorism. However, as Trump bragged in his book, “Art of the Deal,” he is the master of “truthful hyperbole.” The threat of homeland terrorism by immigrants may be real, but the magnitude of the threat is exaggerated to support a sales pitch. The question is at what cost? Justified or not, fear seldom brings out the best in one’s character. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion are being insidiously weaponized, again, by many policy makers to cause us to fear “non-Americans,” whatever that means, and each other.
Let’s be clear about the moral precipice upon which we are precariously perched. In the current political environment, we are presented with a Hobson’s choice that asks us to compromise certain national values out of primal fear and to an extent, personal greed. Have we regressed to the point where the President can all but say to blacks, “I can call you a n—– if I give you a job,” or to all of us, “Kiss my ass, I am a job creator?” Shall we look the other way if we are perhaps better off financially? What is the price of integrity today?
These questions should challenge us. The answers matter. Existential fear prompts the question: Who are we?
The second of the three “witches,” political tribalism, feeds off this primal fear, causing the major parties to demonize each other like many husbands and wives who are mid-divorce. Inevitably, this manufactured hate justifies wrongs and bad behavior. Winning becomes imperative—us against them, Yankees against Red Sox, Alabama against Auburn—even if winning requires disregarding the rule of law and centuries-old institutional norms that are an integral part of the nation’s checks on unbalanced power.
Honor, morality, ethics and respect for the rule of law are often the first casualty, as if these fundamental principles—our national code of conduct—should be optional values when inconvenient. They are not. Norms such as the Senate filibuster rule or the judicial nomination rules, for example, must be immutable. Imagine the NBA Finals being played, and Michael Jordan fouls out in Game 7, except that the referees decide that Jordan, and only Jordan gets seven fouls. Or in the last round of the U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus hits a shot into a hazard, and he falls out of contention, only to be given a mulligan. Norms are norms for a reason—they ensure political fairness, they ensure political balance of power, they ensure some semblance of stability when the nation’s mood changes. Frustration by the party in power was by design, not an oversight by our Founding Fathers. Again, the extreme example of Hitler comes to mind.
The tribal temptation to cheat, of course, is neither new, nor limited to one party or the other. President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, became so frustrated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings during the Great Depression that he attempted to pack the court with additional justices who would be more favorable to his agenda. In more recent history, it was Richard Nixon, a Republican, who sought to gain a political advantage and punish his enemies in the 70s. And today, the cheating continues. This fall’s battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination is but the latest branch of the fruit of the poisonous tree given life by Democrat Senator Harry Reid’s decision in 2013 to eliminate the Senate’s filibuster rule on non-Supreme Court nominations. The temptation proved too great. Sacrifices in morals, ethics, and indeed, norms, often occur in life when the potential harm is minimized to justify an action. That one compromise of institutional norms gave Mitch McConnell and Republicans free license, in their quest to tip the balance of power in the Supreme Court, to first refuse to take up President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016, and to then slip down the slope even further by eliminating the Senate filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominees in 2017.
One truism is certain—the sharp end of the stick is indifferent to the handler. History tends to repeat itself. Unintended consequences may have given us Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, but the decisions by McConnell to further flaunt institutional norms will ultimately come at a high cost. Without the strict enforcement of norms and political order, only the “when” and the “how” remain uncertain. We are better than this. Changing the institutional “rules of game” out of political expediency is not just unbecoming. Our government’s moral standing to lead with integrity, domestically and internationally, is at stake. If we can’t walk the walk, who are we to preach?
LORD VOLDEMORT AND THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH
Primal fear and moving the political goal posts aside—as damaging as each is to our democracy—nothing threatens democracy more than attacks on truth, the third “male witch equivalent.” Except for objective scientific truths, the search for truth is often elusive and personal because we filter facts through the fabric of our life values. Total objectivity, in this sense, seldom exists. That said, however, the truth should never be what we want it to be. The truth exists independently of what we want based on facts, most of which can be quantified objectively. If truth is the true goal, transparency in the critical thinking process is paramount. Inconvenient facts can’t be ignored. Otherwise, we are left with “alternative truth” with no basis in fact.
Today’s climate is reminiscent of the Soviet era, or even Russia today, where truth is whatever is good for the party. Democrats and Republicans alike cherry-pick selective facts or manufacture facts, and then the twisting of the “alternative truth” starts in earnest. We look down our noses at Putin, Josef Stalin or Hitler, but what distinguishes today’s home-grown political propaganda from other dictatorships, past or present? The answer: Not enough. Again, we should be better than this. The truth gap between our government and all Americans should be only as wide as legitimate differences of opinion can be supported factually.
And yet, the search for truth has too often become a casualty of primal fear, the need to win, and party loyalty. For many, the truth isn’t even what they want the truth to be at this point—their “wants” have simply given way to what’s good for the party. Their “truth” filter is either broken, or disconnected altogether by choice. In our judicial system, the trier-of-fact stands silent until a judgment is rendered after all the evidence is considered. Judges and juries do not discuss the evidence publicly prior to deliberating, or during the trial itself. The search for justice demands it. But we are subjected to almost daily updates from the chairs of House and Senate committees investigating the Clinton emails, Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections, and potential campaign finance violations. Each seeks to influence and/or manipulate public opinion—before all the evidence is even gathered—through the selective release of purported facts. Imagine if judges were allowed to comment, mid-trial, on evidence in front of a jury. The public’s faith in the fairness of the judicial system would be severely undermined.
Admittedly, the search for truth is hard work sometimes. But you can’t find truth if you are looking for it. What we want to be true may not be true; what our party wants to be true may not be. The lessons that we need to learn were taught to us all in elementary school. The path back from the negative impacts of primal fear and over-the-top party loyalty may only be found at the altar of the search for truth. It’s time to put truth first, country second, party third.
THE MIDTERMS ARE COMING.
The political pendulum swings back and forth with changes in administration. The pendulum always has. But simply because it always has, doesn’t mean that the pendulum always will, or that we, the people, should accept our fate while the pendulum swings. For the upcoming midterm elections, look past party and apply a new litmus test. Ask candidates difficult questions, like when did they last oppose a position in their party’s political platform, or when they voted with the opposing party on any particular issue. Most of all, challenge them. Ask them if they have the courage to look for the truth independently of what is good for party, or even the country. If you aren’t satisfied with the answer, reject them regardless of party affiliation. A healthy democracy requires courage to be honest and transparent. Truth is an antiseptic. Truth is a patriot.
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