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Why We All Just Can't Get Along

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The rhetoric of political discourse today is rancorous, partisan, inflexible, and destructive to a degree I've not seen in my lifetime of more than seven decades. When radical Christian fundamentalists demonstrate against the President with biblical quotes that are unconscionably mean spirited and potentially dangerous to his health and even survival, a tipping point has been crossed. And when mature leadership of the Republican Party takes the position that the congress should not be permitted even to discuss openly, proposals to challenge the ethics and efficiency of the distribution of health care services in the country, because the mere discussion itself would threaten the underpinnings of the status quo, something more than the usual rough and tumble of politics is going on. Both examples illustrate a larger problem: American democracy is increasingly under assault by the ideologies of capitalism and religion, manipulated by political professionals and others, for short term, essentially self-serving objectives.

The essential genius of democracy is its principled potential to encourage civil, and moral behavior among those who are its adherents. That our founding fathers could have gotten so much so right is a source of wonder, awe, and inspiration. I am an American citizen living in a time and place that may well be mankind's best effort to achieve a social order based on the profound belief that all are entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," an entitlement that I share as an extraordinary accident of birth.

But the practice of democracy in my country during my lifetime frequently has been antithetical to this principled ideology, never more so than presently. Many citizens see their civic responsibility in different, often mutually exclusive, ways. Conventional wisdom holds that much of that disparity could be put right through education and rational conversation.History seems to refute that hope. Notwithstanding our contemporary environment of massively improved modes of communication, our differing perspectives have sharpened and hardened, and civil disagreement is rapidly evolving into partisan contempt.

In part, the problem is exacerbated by a casual human willingness to subscribe to multiple ideologies which, when examined, are mutually incompatible. For example, if a primary aspect of the ideology of democracy is in fact its egalitarian nature, both capitalism and religion, as practiced by some, can be in serious conflict with it. Capitalism cares not at all for the welfare of people in general. It has no need to. A corporation, after all, is a legal construct, an "individual" unencumbered by many of the traditional expectations we hold for that other, more traditional, individual, a person. We find the latter deficient if lacking in morality, sensitivity, or compassion. We expect, to some degree, that people should have a conscience. However, when the legal people, called corporations, behave unconscionably, we may well celebrate them as paragons of capitalism. Their success is measured by material reward for investors, often achieved in part by ignoring any inefficient, needlessly expensive social concerns. Thus, the historic effort in America to ban child labor, to rein in other exploitative practices by employers such as worker safety or minimum wages, and to prohibit or constrain destructive assaults on the environment is simply side-stepped by conscienceless corporations, who outsource their operations to other countries, where such concerns can be ignored in the name of profit. Another illustration of our ideological dilemma is our current attempt to reconcile the needs of increasingly large numbers of our citizens for adequate and affordable health care with the needs of pharmaceutical, health insurance, and medical practitioners to acquire the profits to which capitalism entitles them.

Religious ideologies, by their nature, are also often in serious conflict with democracy. First of all, adherents tend to identify themselves exclusively, not inclusively, the antithesis of an egalitarian perspective. Questions of gender preference, theological apostasy, and all manner of cultural divergence frequently become overt or covert disqualifiers to mutual respect and acceptance. Given that religions are "faith based," behavioral decisions of the faithful are sometimes an expression of ordained precepts, which by definition, are to be believed without recourse to, and often in fact historically in opposition to, what could otherwise be described as reasoned consideration. No amount of education or rational discourse will have any utility in a conversation with an individual whose religious beliefs persuade him to disagree. Many of us ridicule the theocracies of the middle east, while remaining indifferent to the theocratic impulses of our own culture. One need look no further than the actions of our previous President whose intransigent behavior was defended, to the extent that it was explained at all, by his faith based belief that he literally knew what was best for all of us. Investigation, curiosity, consideration, objectivity, all seemed irrelevant and counterproductive to his perspective. His probably unconsidered rhetoric of the need to "crusade" against "evil" was more correctly understood as theocratic than democratic. Much of the unconstrained criticism directed at our current President is clearly an elemental expression of rage by some who simply cannot abide the notion that the nation's leader is an articulate black man.

The ideological challenges of capitalism and religion to the ideology of democracy are exacerbated by the nature of human behavior. Philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, political scientists, psychologists, and the like, with little universal agreement, have proposed comprehensive theories to explain why people do what they do. This much, however, is clear: rational discussion is only one, and frequently not an important, means by which most people interact with each other. Rather, each of us brings to the table our own complex set of beliefs derived from our own unique set of life experiences. It could hardly be otherwise. None of us is able to examine, meticulously and dispassionately, every decision we make. Consciously or intuitively, we all cede some of our credibility to a personal belief system that we do not question. In common speech, we trust our "instincts," because ultimately, as a practical matter, we have no alternative.

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But there is a problem. Trust means we extend our confidence to some belief that may or may not deserve it. Trust is a bridge between what we know, and what we hope. Trust can represent the thoughtful acknowledgment that we can't stop living just because we can't know everything, or it can be the excuse for thoughtlessly pursuing a path that, at least in the short term, is simply comfortable. If we trust an advertiser to influence our brand choice for a box of raisins, the consequences are trivial, but embracing the assurances of those who would encourage us in our comfortable, unexamined, prejudices can well have an undue and unfortunate influence on our political decisions.

How then is the democratic process to move forward in a society where virtually everyone starts from a personal, idiosyncratic perspective? We can begin by acknowledging that most of us who walk the streets are not passionate ideologues. We focus on each day, take the hand we've been dealt, see to our needs, and get by. Our religious beliefs, to take an illustrative example, provide us with hope in time of need, solace in adversity, comfort in times of grief, and the joy of ritual and celebration. A Christian congregant joining other worshippers while singing the old hymn, "Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still," is a positive vision of the worth of religion. Our Christian hymn singer may well have a Jewish friend who does not share his "belief" in the trinity, the virgin birth, or the resurrection, to take a few of the attestations that the congregant makes routinely when he recites the Apostle's Creed. That such seemingly serious differences in belief often have no effect on the friendship between the disparate believers is not astonishing; it is merely the commonplace reality that in human affairs most of us shrug off the differences that we are not passionate about. But we don't dismiss easily those instinctual matters that we do feel passionately about, and that does present a problem in a practicing democracy.

Recognizing the potential danger posed by the exercise of unexamined passion, the founders set up procedures that require the defined entities of government, in effect, to mistrust each other. They built into our political system a host of procedural mechanisms to discourage ill-considered decisions. Ours is a republic, meaning we elect people to represent us, who make decisions for us, stewards of our trust, answerable to us and also to their own consciences and wisdom as they act on our behalf. We have a separation of powers, so that lawmakers, judges, and executives are answerable to each other, with no one of the three superior to the others. Elemental concerns of American democracy include the protection of minorities and the separation of the secular from the theological. We separate state government from federal government, and cope with the inevitable societal and cultural collisions that ensue. The concept of "checks and balances" is not a casual notion; it is the very essence of democratic behavior. In our system of government, changing the rules we live under is, by design, a Byzantine, difficult, and slow process.

The question at hand is whether or not the ideology of democracy can prevail in a pluralistic American culture that, for a variety of understandable reasons, is casual about its reliance on unexamined values. The answer, naturally, is "yes and no." When the unexamined values we hold are not, sometimes literally, considered to be matters of "life and death" to us, we can accept them for ourselves and not be concerned if others, in our pluralistic community of Americans, do not share them. Such differences can co-exist in a dispassionate setting, and civil discourse over time may lead to an accommodation of those differences. When unexamined values are held passionately, however, civil discourse disappears, and with it the essence of democracy. If I am right, and you are wrong, we do not need a conversation; you need to concede. Or, to put it differently, if I am right and you are wrong, neither of us has to examine anything; we're done.


I propose that if one is to assert a serious support of democracy as envisioned by the founding fathers, certain realities apply: government must be secular, must be tolerant enough to eschew a double standard when considering differing perspectives, must exercise a collective and practical concern for those of its members who are unfairly disadvantaged, and must recognize in an intuitive and comprehensive way that humanity is populated by people like us, whose disagreements with us are largely a function of where and when they were born and the consequent life experiences that molded their individual, unique identities. Unhappily, we live in a time when the mechanisms of our political system, and the professional politicians and ideologues who manipulate them, encourage us to ignore these principles. The American public is appalled by the disconnect between its collective will and the actions of its elected representation. We present ourselves to the world as egotistical bullies. Our candidates for office always opt for image over substance, and our uncertified fourth branch of government, the press, is a castrated semblance of its proper self. Perhaps we already have the evidence that the combined forces of corporate greed, religious fundamentalism, self-serving political professionals, and "human nature" will overpower the ideology of democracy. It's not a pretty picture, but we had better look at it.

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I am a retired boatbuilder with a fascination for political thought. Most of my life I cheerfully described myself as an "eastern establishment, knee jerk, liberal Democrat."

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