In high school, I participated in speech and debate, which forced me to do some research into current events. The public arena was full of social and political problems and disagreements, but in those days, America’s problems—the Cold War and nuclear proliferation; internal struggles for social equality, free speech and expanded roles for women in society—were “our” problems. The “enemies” were abroad; at home, there really were two ways of looking at many issues, each side having some validity.
In college, a friend who was a poli-sci major informed me that I was a Democrat, based on my tendency to reason from the perspective of the well-being of the individual. Over time, I began to realize that was mostly true—more often than not, I tended to agree with Democratic candidates. But labels simply weren’t that important in those days. The left-right spectrum was shaped like a bell curve, with most people milling around and rubbing shoulders somewhere toward the middle.
My basic attitudes and beliefs haven’t changed all that much. I still think people are more important that things—including banks, businesses, and corporations—and that collective entities should serve the needs and respect the rights of real flesh-and-blood human beings. I believe that every human being has fundamental, inalienable rights that should be protected at all costs. But like General Colin Powell—a Republican whom I very much respect—I find that I although I’ve stayed pretty much in one place, America has shifted to the right.
Along with this rightward shift have come other changes that have greatly altered the public discourse. One obvious one is the greatly expanded role of the media in shaping people’s attitudes and values. It’s so easy these days for people to punch a button or turn a dial and get 24-hour reinforcement of what they already believe—or what powerful and skillful special interests want them to believe. A related issue is the rise of libertarianism, which in a way is a product of new media technology, as well: libertarians convene mostly on the Internet. One result of all this is that most of what passes for political discussion these days is really the right talking to the right, the left to the left, and libertarians to libertarians—all parties thereby simply getting more entrenched in their own belief systems.
The rise of libertarianism has changed the American political landscape in more ways than one. Although relatively few in number, libertarians are often smart, well-educated, and influential. Individualists by nature, they tend to view government as a problem—at best, an infringement on individual liberties. Libertarians like to view themselves as being above the fray—neither Democrat nor Republican, neither left nor right. However, like it or not, their anti-government stance ends up greatly supporting the interests of the right, which for different reasons, has a vested interest in limiting the power of government. Thus we have the unholy alliance that’s become known as the Tea Party movement. (I must admit to getting a good deal of amusement out of watching right-wing leaders try to steer that movement—a task that will inevitably be analogous to herding cats.)
Finally, the relationship of Americans to their government has been greatly impacted by the unprecedented involvement of churches in matters of state. Roe v. Wade gave the right a chance to harness the power of the pulpit, using abortion to get churches to weigh in on political matters of all types, often endorsing candidates who profess to be “pro-life”—regardless of whether they know a damn thing about anything else. Thus we’ve had two generations in which a healthy percentage of voters have marched off on election days to cast their votes the way their priest or pastor said they should—completely overlooking the facts that 1) no one person has the power to change the law and 2) morality has many aspects. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the whole complex business of health reform didn’t get mired down because of the essentially unrelated issue of abortion.
Thus, the media, libertarians, and the churches are among those who have, albeit sometimes unwittingly, contributed to the rightward movement of the Republican Party—a movement that has many observers wondering aloud whether there are any “moderate” Republicans left in public service. Oh, of course there are also extremists on the right—those who habitually criticize the president for not “going far enough” on issues from health care to gay rights—but they are relatively few. Most democrats today are what used to be called moderates, and most Republicans are what we used to call extremists.
The biggest change in the American landscape in my lifetime has been the shift from respectful, if sometimes spirited, dialogue to a public discourse characterized by rage and contempt. Perhaps that’s because we’ve been a long time without a war of the kind in which the enemy was clearly and unmistakably evil and the objective was saving America from the invasion of foreign powers. (Terrorists succeed in killing a few Americans at a time, but never have they posed a threat of total annihilation or a hostile takeover of the country.)
As a culture, America tends to be pretty feisty. When aroused and focused on a common enemy, as we were during World War II, we’re a force to be reckoned with. But could it be that in times of relative peace with our neighbors, we tend to become the sleeping dragon that, in its restlessness, devours its own tail? Perhaps as a nation, we’re sort of like a hyperactive child in search of any kind of distraction. Perhaps we need to grow up, set lofty goals, work on developing our true potential, and learn to cope with peace.