Years ago, while employed by the state of Florida, Joan and I decided that we could use some extra income; I began work for the Tampa Tribune. I remember one person to whom I had called saying, “The Tribune? Isn’t that the Commie paper?” I answered, much to the discomfort of my supervisor, “No, that’s the St. Petersburg Times. We’re the fascist one.”
That was, no doubt, a rather harsh and simplistic analysis, but the fact remains that of the two major newspapers serving the Tampa bay area, the Tribune is far more conservative and GOP oriented. I rarely agree with the Tribune’s editorials but that published on October 26, 2007, was right on point.
A damaging phrase has crept into our political vocabulary and pushed the level of our public discourse a little lower.
People accused of blindly following a doctrine or leader without thinking for themselves increasingly are being called Kool-Aid drinkers.
The image gives a colorful edge to an otherwise bland opinion, but it has another purpose. It’s a slur that demonizes those to whom it is applied, which can be anyone, including members of Congress and even the president.
Republicans are using it to describe Democrats, and vice versa, but the parties never use it to describe their own most faithful supporters.
The image comes from the Jim Jones massacre in Guyana in 1978. Cult leader Jones ordered his followers to kill themselves by drinking a poisoned grape-flavored beverage. They did and 913 died.
The American political scene has its share of partisan loyalists, but to say they are suicidally brainwashed is absurd.
If you assume the reason folks don’t agree with you is because they can’t think for themselves, their opposition becomes less a democratic obstacle to be overcome than a malevolent force to be defeated.
If your opponent is a Kool-Aid drinker, you’re wasting your time to be polite, empathize with his position or attempt to compromise..
I had allowed myself to get into a discussion on another site with a lady who is an extremely partisan advocate for the Republican point of view. I found that each of us gathered supporters who found favor in our respective positions but would not or could not see any merit whatsoever in any opposing view. Moreover any political discourse was marred by personal insults. The result was and is an intensified polarization that is common today.
For those out there who think of me (and anyone who has the temerity to disagree with their “conventional wisdom”) as an irrational and, perhaps, an unpatriotic Democrat/Liberal, I want to freely acknowledge reading and delighting in the politically slanted opinions of William Buckley, George Will and Cal Thomas. These advocates for their positions and viewpoints are, always, temperate and literate; they nearly always leave me with better insight into the American political scene. The columns of Messrs Buckley, Will and Thomas are not even in the same universe as the blathering of Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and, indeed, many writers on this and similar sites!
While I appreciate and enjoy those partisan writings, I deplore those who can see no value in the “other side’s” positions, who ascribe lack of patriotism to the other guy and whose aim is to divide us and destroy the opposition. These dividers are of both political extremes, have no hesitation about stretching the truth, picking and choosing isolated facts and misstating facts to justify their positions, but more important, to utterly destroy the opposition. On the right, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Mary Matalin are obvious examples, O’Reilly and Coulter being the most irresponsible and simply mean. On the left extreme, Michael Moore and James Carville stand out. It is not enough for these “dividers” to challenge the opposition’s positions; the opposition has to be utterly destroyed.
Over the past years, the political parties have become simplistic. Both parties portray opponents with broad and, on their face, childish brush strokes. Republicans suggest that anyone disagreeing with them were “godless heathens bent on destroying the country that only Republicans truly loved. . . .If you opposed a Republican policy, it was the same as being a terrorist.” Democratic extremists, on the other hand, accuse Republicans of being in favor of “moral intervention”, people who wanted to dictate their personal viewpoints upon everyone.
Two of the most partisan advocates, men who freely acknowledge their respective roles in promoting divisive political attitudes in this country, have written a book that may be too Utopian to be realistic. In their book, Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel posit that, over the past thirty years or so, political campaigns have characterized opponents not simply as wrong but as corrupt and wicked. Such demonizing, the authors argue, is the essence of polarized politics and stems from the strong partisanship of activists who constitute an influential one-third of eligible voters, while the majority of voters who favor consensus are turned off and give up on voting and politics. Thomas and Beckel are at their best when describing the “ideologues, power brokers, and bottom feeders” that benefit from a heated political climate: talk-radio and cable-TV hosts, who win higher ratings; political blogs and websites, which get more hits; and campaign fund raisers, who find it easier to raise money. They also note that many now engaged in politics simply aren’t old enough to remember a time when political opponents could regularly talk in a civil fashion to folks across the aisle, reach a compromise and get things done.
For years Beckel and Thomas contributed to the climate of polarization in Washington . . . and they admit it. “We’re two guys who spent a lot of years in the polarizing business, but on opposing sides,” they write. “We helped write the game plan, and we have participated in everything from getting money out of true believers to appearing on television to help spread the contentious message. In many cases, we wrote the message. We know the gig, and it’s just about up.”
The authors are optimistic that the polarization of politics is coming to an end as more and more Americans are becoming aware that compromise and consensus is better for the country. They set a good example: pundits from opposite sides who not only talk to each other but work together to find common ground on some of the most divisive issues facing us, from the war in Iraq to gay marriage to the Patriot Act. In several instances, they cannot agree; with regard to those issues, such as the invasion into Iraq and many “social issues”, they “agree to disagree” and explore ways to address the issues without personal attacks.
Messrs. Thomas and Bickel state that the extremists account for one- third of the population. The majority of Americans want the politicians to work together. They urge that those in public office seek common ground.
If this to happen, we must simply ignore the strident voices of the “dividers”, the spokespersons of the irrational extremes. To some extent, this has started. Ann Coulter is just about universally regarded as comic relief, Fox News and Roger Ailes as a mouthpiece for a radical-conservative view.
We must insist on an end to the name-calling, bitterness and denigrating the opposing view. We must condemn politicians who are out to destroy the other side rather than acknowledge both candidates are, likely, patriotic and moral people. No more “swift boat” or “Willie Horton” ads, no more inferring that a Max Cleland (a decorated veteran and triple-amputee) was lacking in patriotism, no accusing a John McCain (a prisoner of war in Korea) to be lacking in courage. It all has to stop – and stop it will as soon as the rest of us stop allowing it to influence us.