I’ve watched emotions run high throughout the current health care debate. I’ve seen the town hall histrionics, listened to the talk radio tantrums and read the message board manifestos.
And through it, I’ve heard concern from various quarters that we’re degenerating as a society, that we’ve lost the ability to have a civil discussion.
But in trying to see this through some kind of historical lens, it has come to me that we Americans have never been much for civil discussions.
What was the Boston Massacre but mob provocation followed by sensationalist spin by the media — in this case a pamphlet by Sam Adams and a perhaps less-than-faithful to reality etching by Paul Revere?
This nation was born of headstrong, rowdy partisans who were moved more by passion than persuasion.
It has always been so with the American populace. And the American media? It enjoyed, perhaps, an honorable age through much of the 1900s, but on the whole it has enjoyed stirring public sentiment as much as sifting it.
What I worry about now isn’t that people are shouting at town halls, or that our elected leaders are at each other’s throats. This is how things have always been.
And while I worry at the alarming lack of education that can prompt a woman to, with a straight face, call her Jewish congressman a supporter of “Nazi” policies or permit people to make claims for the Constitution that no reading of the document could support, these things, too, are not unheard of. We haven’t had chain emails void of any veracity throughout our history, but we have managed to weather waves of ignorance well enough.
We’ve also weathered hardball politics and legislators who feed us only the statistics and spin that supports their positions. This, I’m sure, has been the case since our founding.
But what worries me most now is that debates have become an all-or-nothing battle, with every proposal cast as a referendum on the party in power’s future.
This is a path to poor government.
Instead of a clash of ideals, we’re left simply with a clash.
The beauty of this nation’s founding was in its ability to create law and institutions out of disparate interests who then were able to walk away feeling they had won something. From its founding, this nation has been split along lines of individual freedom versus government influence.
But while our generation continues that fight, as all American generations have before, we are adding less and less to the argument.
Where are the thinkers who bring polished proposals to the public? Where are the leaders who stake themselves in front of these ideas and argue them forcefully, laying a foundation for what these debates mean to the nation? And, when the public speaks, where are leaders who are able to pivot and reconstruct proposals that satisfy the majority rather than displease the whole?
In fact, to take the current health care debate as an example, there is no face on the current proposed legislation. It is pinned to the president, and he is advocating it, but he did not craft it. It is a massive, complicated piece of legislation that even legislators can’t fully explain to a public that misunderstands its very nature in the first place.
And in opposition stands a party that acknowledges a serious problem, but offers no alternative, so that instead of a clash of ideas or values, we have half the nation waiting in ambush, ready to destroy the proposal with no ready remedy of its own, nor any foundation of ideas to offer the debate.
Joseph Ellis, Pultizer Prize-winning historian, described the political atmosphere in the early years of this nation as one of “urgency and innovation.” Today we seem to have all urgency, but little innovation. Granted, our current leaders must build on a groundwork, often flawed, that they inherited. That, however, speaks to a need for creativity all the more. But we are seeing it less.
So we’re left not just with a shouting match, but a match comprised more of empty insults and misinformed mayhem than any kind of exchange of ideas.
All of this is fine for town halls, which have always been a messy undertaking. But in the halls of Congress, it leads to bad legislation from which — in stark contrast to the founding principles of our nation — everyone walks away feeling that something has been lost, rather than won.