Must Dissent = Disloyalty?

03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our nation is divided. Massachusetts's election of a Republican U.S. Senator on Tuesday night should give us pause. It should also give us hope that Americans are not sold on the extreme take-it or leave-it solutions from either political party.

The issues that split our nation into two camps are reminiscent of the late 1960s divide over the Vietnam War. My dad and I used to argue about the war - he, a WWII veteran in favor of the domino theory, and I, opposed to an immoral and unwinnable war. Turns out we were both right.

Today, my brothers and I argue over the policies of health care, the federal deficit, and the role of government. My dad listened to me on Vietnam and eventually opposed the war, as did many other members of his generation who took part in the debate over the war. However, today's times are different. I don't sense any real listening going on in the discussion on health care or the deficit, either with my brothers - or by anyone else.

Opinions have been formed. The political parties have their positions. Winning is more important than substance. You are either for health reform and government stimulus spending - or you are against it.

To Democrats and their health-care reform supporters, reform is solely focused on the millions of Americans who are unemployed or uninsured. Supporters trust their political leaders who declare the government is "creating and saving jobs." They believe health-care reform will not increase the deficit, cut innovative medical treatments, or reduce the quality of care they now receive. They deride their opponents as greedy, self-centered, "tea party" extremists unwilling to care about any others but themselves.

But how would so many who founded or died for our nation feel about the lack of real debate and the questioned patriotism by both sides in the stimulus and health-care debate? The $787 billion stimulus package was about 1,400 pages long and voted on by the House just 13 hours after it was printed. It was a leadership bill loaded with pork. The health-care bill has endured an even more wandering path (much of it crafted behind closed doors), with it ultimately being even longer than the stimulus bill and also stuffed with pork spending.

Supporters of these measures focus on the good they do. Helping the unemployed, stimulating the economy and giving medical care to the uninsured - what laudable goals! But each has its costs and every dollar spent on these programs is taken from some other program or future citizen. The record deficits for the stimulus package are worsened by the hidden deficits in the health-care package. The $500 billon dollars in undefined Medicare savings is an expense that Democratic legislators with a wink and nod say will be restored later.

And what of the substance? Where is the debate? Where is the fact that our nation is the most innovative in health care and this "reform" bill would shift us from a nation of innovators with highly trained specialists to a nation where health care is the lowest denominator? Is anyone paying attention to the fact that every organized group of specialists opposes the bill and only the American Medical Association (representing fewer than one in three doctors) tepidly supports it? Why is there no malpractice reform? Why do we ignore the end-of-life costs and discourage people from declaring their own intent, leaving instead to guilt-ridden families the hard decisions that invariably, artificially and expensively prolong lives of those no longer sentient?

The only substance debated and covered in the press was that of mistakenly called "death panels" and the so-called "public option." Yet, our world has been divided into those who support the bill and those whom our political leadership implies (or outright states) are disloyal, unethical or worse because they do not.

A great American once said: "There should always be room for dissent...It is a tragic period for a nation where we equate dissent with disloyalty." I heard this Monday as I celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Day by watching him in a newly released television interview.

We are a great nation because we dissent and disagree, and we get the truth on the table. Americans are innovative because we want a better life for our children. Our First Amendment encourages this disagreement. Google just announced it may remove itself from China because of censorship - an American business forgoing profits because our right of dissent is so fundamental!

We must exercise this right! We must reject those political leaders who urge anyone to simply toe the party line and neither question nor dissent. Our nation is not a duopoly of two parties and two views. We are a mosaic where the best of each party and other ideas should be considered and if wise, embraced. This requires more debate, more thought and more work - but it produces a better result.

We can heal if we listen. We can listen if we engage. We can engage if we define what we want, and then we work for it.

I know what I want for our nation: a balanced budget that provides health care for everyone and encourages innovation. I want fewer lawsuits. I want us out of unwinnable wars.

What do you want: Blind obedience to a divisive party line or a long-term future for which your grandchildren will thank you?

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.