The New Oppocracy
(First published in The Greenwich Sentinel on May 4, 2018)
In the North Country, where I come from, there is a saying: “We have four seasons around here: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter and Road Repair.”
Creeping along I-95 the other day, I noticed a bumper sticker that read “I Resist.” Since I wasn’t going anywhere very fast, I had time to think about that message. The exercise sort of saddened me.
At first, I reflected on the incredible good fortune we enjoy living in this very special country, where every individual is guaranteed the right to speak truth to power, or say pretty much anything, without fear of government censure or penalty. Tragically, there are still places in this world where that bumper sticker alone would be enough to bring the full coercive power of the state down on the head of that driver. I pray that we never go backwards in our commitment to free speech.
And then I thought hard about that message, expressed in the exercise of a liberty so many have fought for and died to protect. That is when I started to feel sad.
I respect everyone’s right to have and express political views, including and especially when they don’t align with my own. That is not what made me sad. What made me sad was a feeling and sense of emptiness around the meaning of that slogan.
Much has been written about the “resistance movement.” (See, “’Resist’ Is a Battle Cry, But What Does It Mean?”, New York Times, February 14, 2017.) At the risk of over simplification (and meaning no offense to its adherents who view it more broadly), I interpret it as the call to oppose Donald Trump personally, his administration generally and its policies universally.
The ad hominem attacks on the President are not what make me sad. He can take care of himself. And, if we’re honest, he brings a lot of it upon himself. But the level of the attacks, their intensity and relentlessness, reach beyond the level of normal political disagreement to a deeper, more emotional state. There is hatred there, and that bodes ill for everyone.
Hate is an individual and very personal decision. There’s not much anyone can do to change another person’s mind when in that state. Even Taylor Swift decries its inevitability: “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” But, what we are seeing is the socialization and spread of a communal hatred that is becoming vicious and threatens to shred what social connectedness we still have in this age of constant partisan bickering.
Case in point: the shameful performance by a comedian at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner could well result in the permanent cancellation of that event. What was once a chance for journalists, politicians and government staff to get together socially and engage in lighthearted banter, has become a snarky attack fest with no pretense at civility, fairness, decorum or even an appearance of bipartisanship. Why in the name of reason would anyone from the current administration attend another one?
But, here is the thought that really made me sad, as I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel of my once-mobile vehicle: I get what that driver is opposed to, but what is it she or he is for?
I believe that most people in this country are optimistic, glass-half-full people who want to see problems solved and life to improve for themselves and their families. They want their politicians to work for them at least as hard as they have to work for themselves. They are frustrated by the current political impasse and disgusted with the tone of current public discourse. Their message is simple: “Get to work and get it done; if you won’t do the former and/or can’t do the latter, then we’ll find someone else.”
I believe much of the opposition we see is driven by a cynical political calculus: in order to gain and keep power (political power being the ultimate goal), one side constantly opposes the other so as to score points with its core political base in the hope that that will drive voter participation. But, this approach has been taken to the extreme, with political leaders taking positions against perfectly rational and reasonable proposals and highly qualified individuals just because they come from “the other side.”
Case in point: our national government was temporarily shut down earlier this year in the midst of a budget battle, ostensibly over the need to resolve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) issue. Then, after that crisis ended, a proposal was made to resolve DACA, which covered significantly more DACA eligible individuals than was demanded in the budget negotiations. Much to my consternation and amazement, that proposal was rejected, most likely because it came from “the other side.” And, what has happened since then on the topic of DACA? Crickets.
Resistance and opposition can be fruitful if they lead to debate, dialogue, constructive ideas and compromise. Where are the constructive ideas from the resistance movement? If all the energy is spent on resisting, how can we hope to move forward? It is the apparent lack of these ideas that really saddens me. It reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s famous quote:
“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.” Right now, all I hear is yelling.
I don’t ask much from our political leaders. Keep us safe. Spend our money wisely and only on those things that benefit the common good and support our ability to support ourselves. Do your work competently, constructively and collegially. Keep the lights on. Pick up the trash. And please, please, please – fix the roads!