It’s no secret that public discourse in this nation is, by some estimations, at an all time low in terms of basic decency and manners.
Truth be told, today’s political climate is a far cry from the earlier rough and tumble days of our nation, when a political debate could end in a dual, or a sitting president would spearhead legislation making it illegal — and punishable by imprisonment — to criticize the president.
Still, I get that most believe political debate, and most any public discussion for that matter, rarely stays on point. Instead, those disagreements quickly become exercises in dung-slinging, with personal attacks and straight-out lies taking the place of reasoned, substantive debate.
Then again, what do we expect? It is the public that allows this, that accepts simpleton slogans instead of informed discussion, feeble-minded labels rather than open-minded debate.
A perfect example of this is what happened just to the north of us, in Virginia, a few years ago. I was managing editor of a newspaper there when Jim Gilmore, the Republican nominee in the 1997 gubernatorial race, came up with the idea of promising Virginians they would no longer have to pay personal property tax on their automobiles if they elected him. “No car tax” became his rallying cry.
At the time there were serious issues to discuss in Virginia — tuition at public universities was growing so fast they were becoming unaffordable, dozens of men were on death row as debates about the use of capital punishment raged, and public schools were seen as failing, among other issues.
Yet everywhere he, or his supporters, went, they would trumpet “No car tax” as the reason to elect him. It was a popular position, and Gilmore was elected. Problem was, that was a local, not state, tax. What Gilmore had done was committed the state to paying each locality in Virginia the amount of money those localities had been collecting in personal property taxes on vehicles. That money came from the same taxpayers who were no longer paying the car tax, but instead were paying for it through other taxes and fees to the state. And some localities have since raised car tax rates above the maximum which the state would reimburse, so they’re getting to pay the car tax and extra money to the state.
A number of people attempted to highlight the smoke and mirrors nature of this campaign promise, that in the end no taxpayer was going to save a penny, but those people were shouted down by that easy, nonsensical slogan, called liberals who were against tax cuts.
Fifteen years later public discourse has fallen to even lower levels, with people or groups quick to slap a label on everyone who disagrees with any portion of their cause.
Don’t like the tea party movement? Call them names, associate everyone in the movement with the small, radical elements of the right, and you feel better about yourself. You don’t agree with something a person says that’s not quite as conservative as your own belief, label him some left-wing socialist nut and you suddenly feel superior to those who disagree with you.
I get this all of the time in my line of work, but I have to admit it’s grown worse in recent years. People who, shall I say, are a little right of center politically or socially will call me to complain or talk about something related to the newspaper and, if I don’t agree with them 100 percent, they immediately start saying I can’t possibly understand because I’m part of that left-wing media establishment which controls everyone person who writes or broadcasts for a living. Curiously, some of those people will admit they haven’t read a single editorial I’ve had a hand in shaping over the past four years, yet they know I’m liberal because I work for a newspaper.
And when we run a syndicated columnist who espouses a conservative point of view, or one of those aforementioned editorials has a conservative slant? Suddenly I’m part of the mindless hoard blinding following Rush Limbaugh or some other right-wing entertainer.
We’ve even had local groups praise us for “getting it,” for really understanding what they’re about based on editorials we publish, only to slam us as liberals trying to dismantle their efforts simply because we would not cover every single event they held. When we do what they want, we’re shining knights in armor, but do something they don’t like and we’re the devil incarnate.
I’m not complaining. Over the years I’ve become used to this, and even find some of it funny. But it’s also sad to realize that most people are too lazy to take an open-minded look at people, or movements, organizations, or simple statements. They want to put a label on everyone — good or bad, right or wrong — based solely on whether one agrees with their position.
And it’s equally sad to think that no effective change in the status quo in America — whether that be in politics, economics, social or cultural causes — is likely to come about until we get over this trait and sit down with reasoned, respectful debate.
Until we can to that locally, in our homes and churches and workplaces, we’ll never see those elected to office in Raleigh or Washington do this.