How cruelty got cool and how we can fix it
Never forget, politics is a substitute for violence. Dick Gephardt said that at the 2004 Missouri Democratic Convention, and this was a man who retired from the political stage before Tea Parties, Occupiers and people named Allen West. Politics isn’t a substitute for violence. It’s a substitute for cruelty.
Look around the last few years and the rhetoric we use. Examine for a moment the politically-motivated shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Consider threats of violence against the president from prominent public figures like Ted Nugent. Ponder the haunting reality of our discourse revealed when several members of the armed forces were arrested last week when they were discovered to be plotting, from within the military, to assassinate the president and overthrow the United States Government.
This is the world we live in now, a world where cruelty is OK as long as the target of your cruelty doesn’t vote the way you do. When then-candidate Obama referred to rural voters as “clinging to their guns and bibles,” liberals secretly cackled at the sentiment. When Mitt Romney called 47 percent of the country “victims” and “entitled,” conservatives everywhere secretly shrugged and grudgingly agreed.
Neither man made an effort to improve these apparently unwelcoming conditions. Neither man laid out a plan to correct these failures. They merely stated them as facts of the electorate to be known and then carefully considered. The statements reflected our national politics as an understanding of voters merely as calculations, easy arithmetic in various demographics to be conquered.
“It’s not my job to worry about those people,” Romney said. They are in the tank of the President, so they don’t deserve my attention, now or when I’m in office. The crowd did not reject this notion, because “those people” were freeloading, unpatriotic liberals unworthy of help or even consideration. This is our new reality.
This might be hard to believe, but there was a time when bragging about overseeing more executions than any other governor — as Rick Perry did — would be in poor taste. And there was a time, not long ago if you’ll recall, when chanting “Let him die” in response to a question about an uninsured American would be considered very ugly behavior. Not anymore.
Now, overseeing record executions is a statement about your toughness and dedication to law enforcement, not your brutal failure in lowering violent crimes or decreasing criminal behavior. Now, letting the uninsured man die is patriotic because the founders believed in personal freedom and abhorred charity.
Once, upward mobility was the measure of the success of our public policy. More upward mobility meant a better nation and a better people. Now, upward mobility is a measure of the worth and value of us as human individuals. Those who succeed are better, smarter and luckier. Those who fail are the victims of fate, left to their own devices in a society without compassion. So now, less upward mobility is not a failure of government or markets, but of people, because they just aren’t trying hard enough.
We are not these people. We are not broad-stroke statements fumbled by incompetent men begging for power and influence. Disagreement is not an excuse for simple men to say things that turn us on each other like wild dogs. Every voter wants the same thing: better schools, cleaner, safer streets and a good job. These are universal truths of an electorate whose similarities far-outweigh their petty differences.
We might disagree on the path, but we can all agree the journey must be undertaken, and no journey can succeed if we continue to eat each other like hungry cannibals with no shame. We cannot burn this house down in order to rebuild it.