Ideological Intolerance Now Getting National Media Attention

New commentary on ideological intolerance/alienation surged in the last week with reactions to some controversial comments by Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) and a Virginia restaurant’s refusal to serve White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders Huckabee, among other incidents.

Encouragingly, these events raised the issue more prominently on the radars of the political pundits. Definitely good to see; I argue that this issue of alienation is the core reason we have been unable to resolve most of the other issues people feel are in need of attention in America today. One can have all sorts of ambitious goals, but if one is mired in the sticky muck, one isn’t going to accomplish any of them. First one needs to get out of the muck.

In our case, “the muck” is our inability to collaboratively communicate. People are beginning to see this; all of these pieces published in the last week (I excerpt each of thse in my comments below):

I’m cautious to pick much further on Waters, because at this point her comments have become something of a simplified, convenient lightning rod for partisan incivility. However, this incident provides such a clear illustration of why alienation runs counter to everyone’s interests that I just have to take the opportunity to elaborate on it.

(A) Inciting one side to further polarize from the other does not work.

I don’t have an issue with Waters exhorting citizens to get involved and take action to move their country forward in the way they see fit. I do have a concern with her admonishing her supporters to “tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” By “them,” she meant, broadly, Trump administration officials.

Let’s analyze that. Assume you are one of the 65 million Americans who voted for Trump. Rep Waters tells you your leaders — and by intended extension your perspectives — are “not welcome anymore, anywhere.” How should we expect those 65 million to react to that assertion? Literally, should they feel … welcome? Presumably not. Should they feel that Ms. Waters and her followers care about their needs or welfare? Should they interpret that she is someone who they can sit down with and hash out collaborative solutions, or instead is someone who has overtly stated they are not welcome and therefore they should conclude that she is an … enemy. Someone they will need to defeat. Instead of work with.

This is my point. This is the very definition of “Elicited Alienation.”  If one wants to cement an adversarial position versus half of America, then Ms. Waters is on the right path. But, I would ask, how has that approach worked out for Democrats over the last decade or so? The Republicans control the Congress. They control the Senate. They control the White House and shortly the Supreme Court. “The trend ain’t looking so good for Maxine.” Instead of exhorting her people to get yet angrier and more alienated, she might contemplate testing out a different approach. How about starting by not pissing off the people she needs to collaborate with to get things done? (I know, you are right, Trump does it even worse. I agree.  Read on…)

The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters ran a piece last week revealing how alienating criticism from the Left has only further cemented support for Trump on the Right. They quote Gina Anders, “46, a Republican from suburban Loudoun County, Va., with a law degree, a business career, and not a stitch of “Make America Great Again” gear in her wardrobe:

“It makes me angry at them, which causes me to want to defend him to them more,” Ms. Anders said.” And so as another immigration crisis of his own making smoldered this past week, critics inside and outside Mr. Trump’s party predicted another devastating, irremediable low point in his presidency. Yet many Trump voters said that they no longer had the patience or interest to listen to what they see as another hysterical outburst by Democrats, Republican “Never Trumpers” and the media. “It all coalesces around Trump,” she said. “It’s either, ‘Trump wants to put people in cages, in concentration camps.’ Or, on the other side, ‘Oh the left just wants everybody to come into the country illegally so they can get voters.’”

She concluded: “We can’t have a conversation.”

Similarly, Politico’s Marc Caputo and Daniel Lippman related how former Pennsylvania Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski believes increasingly confrontational politics are counterproductive:

In 2010, before he lost his seat to Republican Lou Barletta, Kanjorski cut back on holding town halls, which he used to enjoy, because it just became “cannon fodder” for opponents.
Nowadays, he said, he worries about the signal sent when the president’s spokeswoman is denied service at a restaurant or when the Florida attorney general is chased away from a movie.

“I don’t know why they picked on the attorney general from Florida. I don’t like her or her political positions, but she has a right to travel and be around without being harassed,” he said.

We’re limiting real conversation and discussion in this country, and it’s a problem.”

The short point here is, alienation does not work at moving the country forward. Can it “impassion” people to work harder or donate more for the campaign? To get to the voting booths? To feel as if Maxine Waters has fire in her belly for their causes? Yes. Of course. Will it help her to actually accomplish “jack” once she’s elected? Given she needs to collaborate with those people she’s impassioned her electorate to despise, how is she going to get anything done? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Alienation can get you elected. It can also then doom you to failure once in office.

(B) Incitement just leads to further escalation.

It is a natural human trait to grow emotional when frustrated. If we’re not getting our way about something important to us, we grow angry. Totally normal. As we mature, though, we learn to control it. Once we get into relationships with others, we learn that allowing a disagreement to escalate into an emotional confrontation is totally not productive. Anyone married can give us hours of discourse on this topic. It’s not productive to indulge the instinct to inflame each other’s anger. Nothing ever gets accomplished. We all know this.

So why do we let our politicians inflame our anger toward people we need to collaborate with to accomplish the business of the nation? Do we not expect it to escalate? Do we expect the outcome to be any different than when we’re yelling at our wife?

Politico cites the example of Nevada Democratic Congresswoman Dina Titus:

“This is certainly nothing new,” she said in recounting her 2010 loss.

During the campaign, tea party activists would use bullhorns at “Congress on the Corner” events she hosted in front of grocery stores. “There was [also] a lady who followed me around everywhere. … I also recall that some of the tea party people spit on some of our members as they walked into the House to vote.”

Two years later, Titus ran again for Congress and won. And she said Republicans today have to face up to the legacy of aggressive protesting they unleashed eight years ago: “If you embolden this kind of behavior, you shouldn’t be surprised if it comes back to haunt you.”

Vice’s Harry Cheadle further chronicled plans among some on the Left to further escalate the counter-punching this summer.

And yes, absolutely this cycle can devolve to violence.

Newsweek’s Ewan Palmer reports that “Nearly one third of Americans think another civil war could break out in the U.S. in the next five years over opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies with more than one in ten believing it is very likely to happen.”

And more from Politico: “Presidential historian Michael Beschloss lamented that the flare-ups are “a new disheartening sign of a country that is becoming more divided by the hour. It is almost beginning to sound like some of the things that happened before the Civil War. It’s a polarized country. But it is an extremely polarizing president.”

Which brings us back to Maxine Waters. Yes, of course Trump responded to her comments. He further incited his supporters to then badger her. Business Insider reported on the death threats Waters subsequently received. Are those justified in any way? No, of course not. Are they a predictable escalation from telling 65 million Americans they are not welcome? If one chooses to incite, is one surprised when one’s counter-party incites back? Is that progress? Thoughts?  Comments section below.

Waters is an experienced politician. She knows what she is doing. In my opinion, this was not an emotional, reactionary comment she made. It was considered, and she has not backed away from it (to my knowledge). Deliberate alienation.

Writing on NBCNews.com, Evan Siegfried observes,

“One would think that our politicians, whose jobs are often defined more by their words than any laws that they pass, would best understand how recklessness with their words can have severe consequences. Yet, the caustic rhetoric has not abated: “Enemies” are to be confronted.”

And that brings me to my final observation from the recent week (phew!).

When I first started this project to confront alienation/ideological intolerance, an initial fear was that I may find that it exists because powerful interests want it to exist. Over the course of my ensuing research I’ve developed a list of contributors to the problem, all which probably do play some role. But as my perspective evolves I am coming to the conclusion that yes, indeed, the alienation exists mostly because politicians want it to exist.  Turning my people against her people helps me get elected. It fills my coffers. It simplifies my communication with and manipulation of the electorate.

Now, I’m not being all, “conspiracy theory cynical” here. It’s a known political technique, that’s all. And it is certainly not new. But it is, at the same time, a “deal-with-the-devil.” It’s arguably a cynical, lazy way to run a campaign. In most cases it’s also an irresponsible, unprofessional and negligent way to lead. (There are exceptions, arguably, such as, perhaps, during war with an outside party.) And it results in this, as Siegfried cites:

According to a June 2016 Pew Research Center study, 62 percent of Republicans who are highly-engaged in politics are afraid of Democrats, and 70 percent of highly-engaged Democrats fear Republicans. This attitude among politically active partisans is the result of a constant strategy from both sides of the aisle to make their voting bases feel that the opposing party is a threat to them and their way of life.

And yet, all is not lost among the citizenry. The Washington Post wrote a really insightful pieceI highly recommend it — that reports on what the actual front-line citizens think, as opposed to their leaders. They canvas the locals living near Lexington, VA’s Red Hen that turned away Sarah Sanders, from the “out there” viewpoints on both sides to moderates in the middle. For me, the most encouraging was when they interviewed a Trump-leaning auto mechanic and his Clinton-voting counterpart across the literal — and proverbial — street:

“I have people come in here all the time with Obama stickers on their cars and I wouldn’t turn them away,” he said. “The lady next door” — he gestured over at the Rockbridge Music shop — “she’s all about Hillary Clinton…. But I’ve worked on her car for years. What can I say? It’s just a difference of opinion.”

Diana Schofield, the owner of the music shop, laughed when told of Parker’s comment. “I give him hell all the time about those signs,” she said. “But those are great guys over there. They work hard all the time.”

People need to learn how to talk about politics without being uncivil, she said. She plays in bands with conservatives, she said; she had dinner just the other night with a hardcore Republican friend.”

We need to demand similar rational thinking from our leaders.

What are we — all of us — really trying to do? We’re trying to accomplish certain goals for our community. In this case, the community is the nation, and we have problems we want to solve.

I mean, look, set aside all the Waters, Red Hen, Trump, polarized garbage for a moment. Step back with me for a second. What are we — all of us — really trying to do? We’re trying to accomplish certain goals for our community. In this case, the community is the nation, and we have problems we want to solve. We elect our officials to do that. The expectation we need to measure them by is whether they solve those problems. We need to hold them to the expectation that they conduct themselves in a way that results in solutions being struck to those problems. If they are inflaming anger and confrontation with the very people they need to negotiate and collaborate with in order to solve those problems, how exactly are they going to achieve the very purposes for which we elect them?

How?

If you are thinking, “Well, they are going to go in there and defeat those bad people,” then tell me, how has that strategy worked out over the last several decades? For either side? Right now the Dems are on the losing side, but that will eventually change; it’s cyclical. And then it will be the GOP that is all riled up and nasty. But through it all, what is getting done and who is happy? Simple example: A few years ago many were gratified about advances made on national healthcare. Now, only a few years later, they watch those advances being dismantled. What are we accomplishing?

We need to hold our leaders to a higher expectation. Yes, oppose those policies we find objectionable, absolutely. But do it in a persuasive, instead of a divisive way.

A productive way.

Whatever one thinks of Ronald Reagan — and whether he actually lived this philosophy I am about to quote him on — one has to admire an underlying sentiment he championed, as Peggy Grande reminds us, quoting Reagan, “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts.”

That is the type of leadership we need.

Inspired by that, I’ll leave you on a positive, hopeful note.

All of this can end really well. Really, really well. For all of us.

I will tell you that — quite honestly — I am in a strange way really glad we have this problem. Because it is one problem that can be fixed.

I’ll explain in my next blog post. (ooooo…. suspense 🙂

 

 


Argument illustration (c) Frits Ahlefeldt, used according to Creative Commons license.

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Divisive partisanship is preventing us from accomplishing “jack.”

Americans’ propensity to quickly leap to negative prejudgements of ideological opponents poisons our ability to interact with the teammates we need to advance our personal and national goals.

We’re going to fix that.

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“Driving change is always about attracting, never overpowering.”

— Greg Satell, author of “Cascades; How to Create A Movement That Drives Transformational Change”