We were listening to a public radio program the other day that was reviewing where the 2016 election cycle is at this moment. One of the comments was that even the most hard-core and experienced political observers are at a loss to explain what is happening this year or to begin to sort it out. In short, they are even more confused than usual. All the conventional wisdom of the past seems to be irrelevant. This is especially true in the GOP race where Donald Trump, with no political experience, is leading.
At first they (the experts) said he was a flash in the pan, stands no chance, will start tanking once the lack of truth or the extreme bombast of his message is seen.
Now they (the experts, again) are saying he could very likely win the nomination.
Then there's Dr. Ben Carson, another inexperienced politician and Ted Cruz whose colleagues find little good to say about him.
A look across Facebook indicates a deep and indescribable divide in the nation. Sure, the extremes, left and right, get the press. They yell the loudest and make the most outrageous statements and therefore you notice them.
But this seems different this year. Deeper, more contentious. While I am not an expert, I am an old political science major who has lived through, watched, and participated in political campaigns in one way or another since 1956. That's 60 years of watching and I have to admit that for the first time in all these years, I am afraid of what is happening.
Before going into detail let me say that some of my friends will tell me that I am overreacting to the early ups and downs of this crazy political season. They will remind me that Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee have previously won the Iowa caucuses. We are a long way from the conventions, let alone the general election. A lot can- and most likely will- happen.
I hope that is true. I pray that is true.
I also hope and pray that the GOP doesn't do something even more stupid than nominating a Trump, Carson or Cruz. I hope they don't find a way to play with their own election rules to keep Trump from winning. The divide will only get worse.
Having said all that, back to the fears.
The only other time I remember being afraid in a presidential election was in 1964 when Barry Goldwater came across as an extremist, ready to go to war. "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!... [M]oderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" he famously said. We had been on the edge of our seats since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when we knew we had been only a blink away from a nuclear exchange. Here was Goldwater seeming to be a saber rattling politician.
This seems different. The fear is coming from within our national psyche. It is division and hate that seems to be taking the upper hand. It is name-calling and prejudice and stereotyping people of all types from both sides of the political divide. I have previously talked about why some of these issues are so important. The depth of the anger and prejudging of others by the color of their skin or the way they worship or the type of clothes they wear is taking over the news and airwaves.
- We have Sikhs being attacked because some people can't tell the difference between them and Muslims.
- We have people claiming that "white lives matter" as a way of denying that African-Americans are often profiled and attacked simply because they stand out.
- We have presidential candidates wanting to deport all Mexicans, build a wall on our southern border and close all borders to Muslims.
- We have many who don't believe that Obama was born in the United States and that he is a Christian.
- We have seen a rise in what used to be called "nativism" the idea that native-born and established residents take precedence over immigrants.
- We ignore the fact that our police forces are made up of human beings, some of who can and do make mistakes and commit crimes, while most are just like you and me- trying to do a job the best they can. Yet both sides refuse to accept that. Police are either demonized or placed on pedestals.
With this increasing polarization and ramping up of the rhetoric what might happen if, in the end the extremist views lose? Or win? In a loss they will claim persecution. In a win they will gloat and rattle their own sabers more forcefully.
Either way could spell danger to our very democratic ideals. In search for security- ultimate and complete security- we can easily be convinced to give up more and more of our liberties. Abraham Lincoln famously said:
America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.Either the left or the right could accomplish this. Any extremism that seeks to reduce our freedom and liberty for whatever reason can accomplish this. And it will be done in the name of preserving our democracy. Remember we are the nation whose military leader once commented that they had to destroy the village to save it. The language and logic of extremist views of either side is neither safe or logical.
That is why I am scared for this next year. 2016 may very well be one of those watershed years of our history. It may be one where we make decision that will set a direction for the next 50 years. This nation- and our democracy- the "shining light to the nations" we have claimed to be- is being called to make some important decision this year. The level of anger and hate and horrific rhetoric may prove too toxic for us to survive the way we have.
I don't believe that the American people- US- the USA- will go that direction. We have a deep and enduring sense of what is right and wrong- and I believe we will maintain that. We were created as a nation with flaws and, yes, sins. But we have worked and grown and embraced change as it was needed. We have sought often to move away from the "bad" and more toward the "good."
- Democracy works on compromise, on discussion, on listening with open minds and ever open hearts to our fellow citizens.
- Democracy works to protect the rights of the minority as much as the rights of the majority.
- Democracy works to preserve values and principles and is an ever-changing, ever-evolving process that seeks to discover what can be done next.