If "we the people" can't agree on "our" president, is there any hope for us? Actually yes.
Last night my public service leadership boot camp class pondered this topic. We were reviewing a public service fitness test exercise when some students commented that criticisms seem targeted at whether Obama is even fit to be president, despite his having been duly elected. Today Tom Friedman put forth a similar question in his column, asking, "Where Did 'We' Go?"
Political legitimacy begins with math: do you have the majority to be a winner? We noted that Bill Clinton had twice received less than 50% of the vote, George W. Bush won 5-4 in the Supreme Court over Al Gore who had won more votes, and while Barack Obama won 53-47 overall, his fervent opposition targets elected Democrats in areas that voted for John McCain.
What do you do to an "illegitimate" president? Investigate and impeach him. For Clinton, the travel office and FBI file investigations began in May 1993, with articles of impeachment first filed in 1997. For Bush, impeachment calls began in 2002 for using 9/11 and unsound WMDs to justify a march to war in Iraq, with articles against Cheney filed in 2007. For Obama, these calls began even before his election -- an Impeach Obama website went up during the summer of 2008.
Throw in sensationalism, racist and sexist remarks directed by miscreants from across the spectrum and it looks ugly. Sure there are pundits who publicly deplore screeds against Bill Clinton and George Bush, sexism against Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin, racism against Condi Rice and Michelle and Barack Obama -- but how many shows stick to the issues, not personalities, outfits, or skin tones? How many websites require real names, addresses, and standards for commenters and ban the offenders? Not many. There is some public shaming of people who openly espouse hateful speech -- but a ratings chase and a revenue chase combine to coarsen the debate. Contrary to what some pundits allege, concern for political violence by unstable listeners does not make the concerned person a "nut job."
Third, there is political segregation: we choose our news. People see news and opinion as commodities, making choices based upon philosophy: we know what we're going to get from MSNBC and FOX before we turn on the channel.
This is our new reality -- and some days it looks so ugly one could reasonably turn away from civic life.
But we don't.
Americans in greater and greater numbers engage in volunteering with people across the spectrum. We embrace national service in community and military life. The same social networking technologies that spread vitriol also catalyze positive connections and promote positive change. After 9/11 and Katrina, people came together in civic unity to donate, comfort, and rebuild. After our troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, unprecedented resources from bipartisan sources await them. Not enough -- but far more than in prior wars now that opponents are learning to separate the warrior from the war. Week after week people from all political persuasions come out for AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer's walks. Today we see an outpouring of aid for the people of American Samoa devastated by the tsunami.
These and millions of other individual acts of service show that Americans separate the political from the civic. What can we do as individuals? Make our own media and tell our own story. Call out the extremists among our friends: peer to peer mentoring is superior to cross-party chastising. Remember the liberals and conservatives do not "always" or "never" do anything -- we are not a monolith. Celebrate and elevate the cooperation with the airtime and bandwidth we give the discord. Continue to push citizenship and broadcast its success.Channel the volunteering goodwill into political consensus. The most profound political change can come from partisan people engaging in nonpartisan service.
Will fewer people read this post than those who would read one blaming someone for the current state of affairs? Probably. Snark always outpolls schmaltz. But I believe it's a point worth making -- and work worth doing. Yes, we can.
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