01/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin, Powell and Polarizing Politics

Welcome to your daily alliteration. Colin Powell said on CNN that Sarah Palin was polarizing. Thank you, General Obvious. (I was going to say "Captain Obvious" but I don't feel right demoting him before I've even had my coffee).

I think she had something of a polarizing effect when she talked about small town values are good. Well, most of us don't live in small towns. I was raised in the South Bronx and there's nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx. And when they came to Virginia and said, you know, the southern part of Virginia is good but the northern part of Virginia is bad. The only problem with that is there are more votes in the northern part of Virginia than there are in the southern part of Virginia so that doesn't work. But it was that attempt on the part of the party to use polarization for political advantage that I think backfired. And I think the party has to take a hard look at itself. There's nothing wrong with being conservative, there's nothing wrong with having socially conservative views, I don't object to that. But if that party wants to have a future in this country, it has to face some realities. In another 20 years, the majority in this country will be the minority...

Powell hit the nail on the head in one way, and totally missed it in the way that counts.

Palin's obliviousness to how her words are perceived by others didn't make its first appearance in the divisive language of small town vs. big town, and "real Virginia" vs. the other Virginia. Remember when she mocked community organizers? Or when she accused Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists"? Palin relies on division, and has much to learn about diplomacy. She may solidify a "base," but that base shrinks every time she opens her mouth, and this is what Powell has recognized.

And while Powell rightly tells his own party to take a hard look at itself, and while he rightly accuses Sarah Palin of engaging in a strategy of backfire, he's missing the big picture.

According to Powell, the reason that the divisive politics of "real Virginia" was in need of reexamination, was because there were more people in Northern Virginia. "The only problem with that, is there are more votes in northern Virginia" he concluded, and that problem, he argues, was a strategy mistake of alienating the majority. If there had only been more people in "real Virginia," then using Powell's reasoning, the strategy of division would have been perfectly fine.

And according to Powell, there's "nothing wrong with having socially conservative views." While it sounds awfully nice and inclusive to say that, in many ways those views are part of the problem. There are some major land mines in social conservatism. Freedom to marry comes to mind. One could substitute the word "marriage" for the word "Virginia" and produce the same effect of alienating and demeaning an entire group of people. "Real marriage" is fine. "Other" marriage....well, that's just plain wrong, even though it denies an entire group of people the freedoms, rights, benefits and privileges that the rest of us "real" married people enjoy. There are more straight people than gay people, so using Powell's logic, that's OK. It will "work" because it will win. There's no problem.

I can't fault Powell for being a strategist. It's who he is, and what he does. He's paid to think about winning strategies. And he's absolutely right that the politics of division is wearing thin on the American people, and certainly had a part in losing the election for the Republicans. But let's acknowledge that it's wrong on principle, and not just a strategic mistake that kept one party from winning. We need to "win" from the bottom up. And that's not going to happen when we decide that the right strategy is to only employ the politics of division if you're appealing to the majority group, whoever that may be.

Powell tells his party to reexamine their strategy. Let's hope they reexamine their principles.