Columns 2009

Respect in political life

As I listen to the commercials being broadcast endlessly about health care reform and its alleged dire circumstances to seniors on Medicare, what sticks in my mind is the ending to one of the commercials. It is simply a senior saying, “Seniors won’t forget”. The not too subtle threat is that if a politician votes for health care, senior citizens will vote en masse to turn him or her out of office.

And so my last hope for civil discourse crumbles as the only age group who could possibly still remember what civil discourse sounds like makes a move to the dark side.

It’s not that disagreeing with politicians is wrong. God knows some of us think it is our civil duty to keep them on their toes by questioning their every move. That’s what a participatory democracy should really be all about.  But we’ve reached a level of ugliness that astounds even this child of the sixties who remembers marching in Washington while chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

I have some very good friends who sit so far on the opposite end of my political spectrum that I can barely see them.  When discussing current events we will argue until their spouses are making mental notes to never invite me to dinner again.

But our debates are never mean spirited because I respect the people I’m debating. I know them to be upstanding, moral individuals who are dedicated to their family and country. The fact that their views on the best course for this country and state differ from mine does not lessen that respect. In fact, because of my respect for the people they are, I am willing to listen to their side of the argument even when they are clearly dead wrong.

When all is said and done, no matter which of us wins on any given debate, my basic respect for them is still there. If people I respect so much hold such opposing views to mine, then I should probably give those views a chance without assuming America is going to hell in a hand basket if they prevail. And that, my friends, is called civil discourse.

The problem in our current political life is that the politicians we’ve elected to high office do not command our respect.  If we do not view them as honorable and respectable as people, then we clearly must hold suspect all they do.

We consistently elect and re-elect politicians with questionable ethics or limited skills because they will get us what we want no matter how much we have to hold our noses while checking off their name at the ballot box.  In Alaska in particular we seem to not really give a damn about someone’s ethical lapses so long as they are still able to shovel the federal or state bucks to our little part of the world.

We also seem willing to vote for any questionable character if they share a specific social agenda with us. For so long as they have that position right, apparently a lot of people don’t care if said politicians knows if Africa is a country or a continent. And yes, I’m speaking about our gal, Temporary Sal.

Recent polls show that most Republicans do not think she has the gravitas to hold a high national office. Yet many still said they would probably vote for her. Why? I’m guessing because her stance on nuclear proliferation, climate change and economic malaise is not half as important to them as her position on abortion and gay marriage.

In the end, we get the government and representation we deserve. We have no one to blame for the sorry state of America’s political scene and the lack of civil discourse in public debate but ourselves. Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh may stoke the fires but we are the ones continually throwing more wood on the blaze.

At a time when so many critical issues face this country, not the least of which is the potential to be bankrupt in the very near future, you’d hope we would take a moment to reassert civility in public discourse while electing intelligent, honorable people to high office.

Unfortunately, I think it is a forlorn hope.