"Congresswomen Shot in Arizona. 6 Dead, 12 Injured"
IN MY TERMINALE history class we spend several weeks studying the geo-political power of the United States. We examine two main questions: 1) why is the US so powerful, and 2) what are the possible threats to that power? To answer question one we focus on an array of obvious explanations: political power (DC, NATO, UN), financial power (Wall Street, Fortune 500 companies, etc), military power (have you seen the Pentagon's budget?), cultural power (hollywood, McDonalds, Coke), and other areas where the US dominates the global scene (communications, transportation, even agriculture!). Our discussion of question two leads to some obvious answers as well: dependence on foreign energy sources, increasing debt, changing attitudes toward the US, domestic issues (immigration, crime, obesity, etc.), and the emergence of other global powers (can you say BRIC!).
But more and more I am becoming convinced that one of the greatest threats to America's future is not related to energy or money or debt or terrorism. In fact, it's not related to geo-politics at all. I have added a new section to my syllabus where it pertains to the greatest challenges facing American power and it is a section on discourse. Political discourse.
In my country the political rhetoric is deteriorating. Too many of our political leaders now put self-interest before progress, politics before purpose, and party before country. We have become a country where we stick to our embedded political views even when facts and information show we are wrong. We find more satisfaction in demonizing our opponents than in finding solutions with them. Compromise has become a sign of weakness.
This is, of course, nothing new. America has a rich tradition of distasteful political bickering (once even leading to a Senator being beaten with a club in the halls of Congress), but what is different about today's discourse is that it -- to use a 21st century term -- goes viral. Today the message of political intolerance is broadcast on talk shows or 24-hours cable outlets and spewed over the internet on blogs and social media sites. Partisan hacks like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Marcos Moulitsas, Sean Hanity and Keith Olberman (to name just a few) fan the flames at every turn, urging their loyal ditto-heads to 'stand by their guns', 'never give in', and 'lock and load'. Fox News and MSNBC spend so much time hurling verbal insults at each other that they fail so see how pathetic they look to the millions of Americans who don't subscribe to lowest-common-denominator politics. But to the millions who do buy-in to their Ratings-First approach, the result is a poisonous brand of political propaganda that is hurting America.
It has to stop.
A member of the United States House of Representatives was shot on Saturday. While it would be irresponsible to claim (at this point) that the shooter was driven by any political group or viewpoint, it has opened a nation-wide discussion about the nature of our dialogue. The Representative in question, Gabrielle Giffords -- a Democrat from Arizona, has recently been attacked by both sides of the political spectrum. Sarah Palin had a truly disgusting way to display her displeasure: placing a gun-sight 'target' over Giffords' district as part of a campaign to target 20 members of Congress she hoped to send home last November. But it's not just the political right. The ultra-liberal DailyKos website also had a target over her district, claiming she was not strong enough on liberal issues. It appears that Rep. Giffords was the worst kind of politician -- one who (gasp!) holds views that might appeal to people on both sides of the isle.
The shooting will certainly lead to sweeping condemnation of this group or that, this website or that, this person or that. I suppose I've sort of done that myself right here. But the issue is bigger than one horrific incident and the stakes are far greater. America needs to get back to basics and understand that the best part of a functioning democracy is the exchange of ideas, the give and the take, and -- yes -- the compromise that leaves everyone feeling as if they have gotten something good out of the deal. The United States will never be a 'conservative' country and it will never be a 'liberal' country and the only people who can't seem to grasp that idea is Conservatives and Liberals. America's strength lies in the balance between the two.
This year I'm going to spend a couple minutes explaining to my history class that the current discourse in the US is one of the greatest threats to America's future. With any luck, I'll be able to cut that part out of my lesson in future years.