What has happened to us?

What has happened to us? January 19, 2012


If there is one thing we can all agree on in the American political sphere, it’s that we are a divided nation.  Sure, our divisions grow more conspicuous going into an election year, but we all know they’ve been there well before the pre-election hype began to take over our national consciousness.  As soon as we begin to ask what is at the root of these divisions, however, the question unfolds into a daunting tangle of related questions.  When and how did we become so hopelessly polarized?  Or are we simply exaggerating the uniqueness of our time, just as people in every age are wont to do?  Has it always been this bad?  When did partisan gridlock and brinkmanship become such a commonplace occurrence?  How did the parties come to be so ruled by fear of their cartoonishly villainous caricatures of each other?  And why oh why does the tea party have such sway?  And, of course, everyone’s favorite: who is to blame for the mess we’re in?

As a staunch political independent, I cannot, nor do I wish to, take the default partisan recourse of blaming the nearest president from the opposing party.  As naive as it sounds in retrospect, both Bush and Obama began their presidencies with great bipartisan promise – including, from what I understand, some decent track records to back it up.  And both presidencies have proven to be insanely polarizing.  On one level, it is sort of a perverse testimony to the effectiveness of our political system that our public discourse can become so vitriolic without degenerating into large-scale physical violence, but on the other hand, we are deluding ourselves if we assume that unless our violence is physical, it’s not really violence.  I suspect I’m not alone in getting the feeling that something – beyond generic invocations of human fallenness – is deeply wrong. 

Maybe we’ve undergone a genuine socio-political tectonic shift, or maybe it was just the coming-of-age disillusionment that everyone experiences when they begin to be politically aware (I welcome input on this from those with a longer lifetime’s perspective), but it feels to me like at some point in the not-too-distant past, something in the atmosphere changed.  Was it the 2000 Bush/Gore election controversy?  But Bush did manage to give us a post-inaugural honeymoon in his early months, and his pre-war personage as President Malaprop was oddly endearing.  Was it the “war on terror” and post-9/11 backlash?  But the immediate bellicosity at that time was originally less controversial than perhaps it should have been.  Was it the superhuman expectations put on Obama, and the subsequent disappointment when he did not turn out to be the messianic harbinger of a new era?  But I’ve gotten the impression at times that he’s been burning himself out trying to make a conciliatory approach to politics work in a system that already had no room for it.  But I’ve also gotten the impression that there has been disconcertingly little real difference between him and Bush in terms of the implementation of policies that respect human dignity, or fail to…

Beyond this amateurish flailing around in my young political memory, I can’t put my finger on what is really at the root of the deep national illness that seems to be plaguing us.  Maybe it (whatever “it” is) has roots going much further back in our national history.  Who knows?  I sure don’t. 

The closest I can come to any kind of answer is my growing suspicion that most if not all human sin, whether personal or social, is rooted in fear.  So maybe the question to be asking is, what is the fear that we – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Americans of all stripes – are so enslaved to?  On this point, I remain at a loss.

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