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All the talk about the extent to which American politics have become “polarized” causes one to ask how serious the phenomenon actually is. How pervasive and deep-seated is it really? Is it as alarming as it’s made out to be, or is it one more instance of media hype? How long will it last? Is this something we can expect to eventually “outgrow,” or are we stuck with it?
Arguably, by the time most people reach middle-age they’ve pretty much selected the type of friends they’re going to have. For example, if you’re the sort who follows current events and world affairs, it’s likely you’ll hang with people with similar interests and similar political views. While you won’t be carbon copies of each other, you won’t be picking friends (real friends, not acquaintances) whose views are diametrically opposed to yours.
If you’re a hope-to-die liberal, you won’t have a soulmate who is a bitter racist or shrieking homophobe. In fact, it’s likely that by the time you’re fifty, if you’ve played your cards right, you won’t even know many of these people. While it’s true that we can still run into the occasional oddball—an opinionated co-worker, an obnoxious relative, a loudmouth neighbor—who drives us up the wall with their reactionary views, we stay pretty well isolated, by choice.
Because I resist seeing myself as this programmatic left-winger who switches on his ideological automatic pilot whenever an opposing view appears on the radar, I try to confront polarization head-on—partly to prove I’m nimble-minded and confident enough to juggle conflicting sides of an argument, and partly because it’s the “good citizen” thing to do. Like an aging boxer who’s past his peak, I like to think I can still go a few quality rounds with anybody.
Yet, when I try to stimulate open-mindedness among my closest friends and family by displaying a willingness to put my hand in the fire, these good people bombard me with taunts and hostility. When I say something critical of the home team or, God forbid, something positive about the opposition, I’m vilified. I’m gang-tackled. I get accused of having “gone Republican.”
Take Sarah Palin, for instance. Everyone I know (me included) can’t stand her. Our reasons for disliking her are too numerous to mention, so I won’t bother. But when I stood on my hind legs and said I thought she got a bum rap during the campaign—accused of being so “gullible” as to be tricked by the Montreal comedian pretending to be French president Sarkozy on the telephone—I was hooted down. “She should have known!” they screamed. “Are you joking?? Are you crazy?? How dumb can you be not to know it was a hoax?!?”
The same with the recent Newsweek cover showing Palin in running shorts, looking ridiculous. Given that Newsweek’s editors had, literally, scores of photos to choose from, Palin had a legitimate gripe when they picked this one (from Runners World magazine). You want to show her in running togs? Fine, then show her running in them. You can’t do a girl-candidate-as-cheesecake number on the cover of a national news magazine and pretend it’s rigorous journalism.
My friends went berserk. They argued that this faux-stateswoman, this egocentric shill, this over-reaching bimbo, had once competed in a beauty pageant wearing a swimsuit for crying out loud, and, therefore, deserves every bad thing that happens to her. Mind you, I wasn’t defending Palin (far from it!), merely making an observation about the media. But they went off on her, pouncing on every irritating trait: those winking, sparkling eyeballs, that well-oiled smile, that grating Arctic hillbilly voice.
Dick Cheney is another example. I once credited Cheney (who, for the record, makes me ill) for having taken the initiative, back when he was G.H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, to shut down military bases at the end of the Cold War even though he was attacked by the military-industrial complex for doing so. I argued that shutting down bases was a good thing, that, at the very least, it was a step in the right direction, and that Cheney had done well. “Are you serious?!?” they screamed. “That’s his fucking job!! That’s his fucking job to shut them down!!!”
I also “complimented” Cheney for (according to Bob Woodward’s book) defiantly not bowing his head in the Oval Office when our intellectually challenged Commander-in-Chief asked him and the other advisors to pray with him for God’s help in slaughtering Middle Easterners. Because Cheney isn’t religious, he steadfastly refused to bow his head. How did my cohorts respond? “Well, a big whoop-dee-doo for him!” they sneered. “The man wouldn’t bow his head?? Big fucking deal.”
I praised George W. Bush for his graceful exit from office, reiterating how damaging his regime had been to the country, but grudgingly acknowledging that it was good of him to butt out—to let the next guy take over without drawing attention to himself. No dice. My friends could scarcely contain their indignation. “So you think he deserves praise for finally realizing what a fucking idiot he was for eight years?!?” Okay, I get it.
Hatred abounds….on both sides. When former White House press secretary Dana Perino recently appeared on the Sean Hannity show, she chastised Obama for not calling the Fort Hood killing spree what it really was—a “terrorist attack.” Obviously, Perino was attempting to use the Fort Hood tragedy as partisan grounds for humiliating Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Then, astonishingly, she went on to boast that there had not been a terrorist attack during the Bush administration. "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term," were her exact words.
Perino wasn’t purposely lying. After all, how could this woman believe, even for an instant, that such a lie could “fool” anyone who recalled the WTC attack? Rather, her obliviousness to the chronology of 9-11 was the product of a near crippling blind-spot caused by hatred of Obama.
We see evidence of this hatred in the “birthers,” the “tenthers” the tea baggers, in the mindless nitpicking—the criticism of Obama for accepting the book from Hugo Chavez, for bowing to the Chinese, for making his pitch to the Olympic Committee, for using a teleprompter, for choosing the wrong dog, for his wife’s bare arms, for his kids’ “African” names, etc.—and in the broad smears accusing him of being socialist, anti-American, Moslem, racist, etc. There’s no end to it.
While the intensity of the Right’s hatred of Obama surpasses the Left’s hatred of Palin, Bush, Cheney, et al, the two are not dissimilar. Moral certitude, wherever it’s found, is impenetrable. It recognizes no middle ground. We’re either preaching to the choir or beating our heads against a wall.
The question is: Will we “outgrow” this? Will it prove to be just a bad patch we’re going through, or will this be what electoral politics looks like in the post-millennium? In any event, ideological ad hominem is a reality. Welcome to Democracy 2009….brought to you by the folks at talk radio, cable television, and the blogosphere.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org