(In)Tolerance

Recently, I was having lunch with a friend for whom I have great respect.  She expressed that she believes she possesses great tolerance — with the exception, she said, of those with a differing political opinion.

That statement was a great clarifying moment for me.  Here was this person, highly educated and intelligent, who is basically saying that she just can’t tolerate differing political opinions.  I think of that conversation as an “a-ha moment,” an epiphany of sorts, as to all that I find troubling in today’s political environment.

There is nothing original in saying this, but I must say it nonetheless:  I am sick, to the point of a primal scream, of this presidential contest, and of our political landscape in general.   I have reached the point where I can barely stand to watch television.   MSNBC or Fox — really, what’s the difference anymore?  Their viewpoints, sure.  But their rigid dogmas and rabid discourse?  It’s just different sides of the same coin.   I enjoyed every minute of watching the debates (as flawed as they are, the pureist thing yet in this election), but had to tune out as soon as the debates ended and segued into the talking heads and spin room.

Where is reason?   Where is intelligent, respectful discourse?  Where is objective reporting?   My j-school professor Marty Brian, God bless her, must be turning in her grave….  There is no presumption of good will or good intentions, no even slight extending of the benefit of the doubt.  They are bad; we are good.  They are wrong; we are right.  They are evil; we are honorable.

My friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances are about equally Republicans and Democrats (is that unusual these days?), and I know that it’s not that clear-cut.  I have a “D” after my name, but my friends of differing political opinions are good people — but also people whose life experiences and independence of thought (imagine!) have led them to reach different points of view from my own.   My Republican friends (my Republican-leaning husband included) don’t hate gays. They aren’t racist.  And my Democratic friends aren’t looking to create a welfare socialist state that redistributes all income and suppresses free enterprise.

Some will say I’m naive — and maybe I am.  I can see shades of gray (does that make me squishy?  I don’t think so).  But before you label me naive,  remember how inspired so many of us were, four years ago, by that gentleman who encouraged us to rise above dogma and reach across the aisle and try to get along?  Sadly, that particular experiment didn’t work out so well (there’s plenty of blame to spread around), and today those words seem almost provincial.

Of course I have my “line in the sand,” and I know there are extremist people out there who wish others ill will.   But in my humble opinion, the vast, vast majority of the people in this country, regardless of their political persuasion, have good intentions and aren’t the extremists we are led to believe.  We can’t reasonably assume that one’s party affiliation tells us the content of one’s character.

As I was writing this, I happened upon an interesting article addressing this same notion.  (In the spirit of keeping it non-partisan, I won’t credit the publication.)  It more artfully captures what I find so disappointing and divisive in today’s political environment.   Allow me to quote just a few passages….

“For the past generation or two, Washington has been the not so hallowed ground for a political war. This conflict resembles trench warfare, with fixed positions, hourly exchanges of fire, heavy casualties on both sides, and little territory gained or lost. The combatants wear red or blue, and their struggle is intensely ideological.

“Before the 1970s, most Republicans in official Washington accepted the institution of the welfare state,  and most Democrats agreed with the logic of the Cold War. Despite the passions over various issues, government functioned pretty well. Legislators routinely crossed party lines when they voted, and when they drank;  filibusters in the Senate were reserved for the biggest bills;  think tanks produced independent research, not partisan talking points. The “D” or “R” after a politician’s name did not tell you everything you thought about him.

“….The people Washington attracts now tend to be committed activists, who think of themselves as locked in an existential struggle over the fate of the country, and are unwilling to yield an inch of ground.

“…The War Between the Colors reflects a real divide in the country, the sorting of Americans into ideologically separate districts and lives.

” …the fighting never really stops.”

A “National” Election, Fought Only In A Handful Of States

Our “national” elections have become increasingly odd.  Many states are written off by the campaigns from the start as being solidly in one column or the other.  Residents of those states never see candidates (except for the occasional quick fundraising trip) and don’t have to endure the avalanche of TV commercials, robocalls, in-person visits, and candidate motorcades.

If you look at the RealClearPolitics electoral map, you see huge states that have become “flyover country” for the campaigns.  In California, Illinois, and New York — three of our most populous states — the President is far ahead.  The average of recent California polls, for example, has the President up by 14 points.  I’m sure many people in those states wonder what the heck the fuss is about; they go about their daily lives and rarely encounter people who support the other guy.  The same is true, but in the other direction, in states like Texas — where the most recent poll, taken at the end of September, has Mitt Romney leading by 19 points — and across a huge swath of the South and Midwest.  People in those states no doubt are similarly astonished that President Obama is even keeping it close.

That’s why it is so curious to live here in “Battleground Ohio.”  Everyone is focused on us.  The Washington Post carried a story yesterday calling Ohio the “Bull’s-Eye State.”  The National Review website has a special section called “Battleground Ohio” that features stories exclusively about Ohio.  The National Journal running total of ad spending shows that more than $160 million has been spent in Ohio alone, and as the last week before the election approaches the spending of the President, Mitt Romney, and their supporters are spiking.

Here in Ohio, you can’t watch any TV program without seeing a host of political ads.  Yesterday, in our tiny sliver of northeast Franklin County, located in the middle of the state, we had campaign workers visit our door (we used hyped-up Penny and Kasey as an excuse not to talk to them) and today we’ll probably see more.  The candidates keep coming, and coming, and coming, holding rallies on airport tarmacs and in high school football stadiums.  We’ve grown used to the ads, the stopped traffic as candidate limousines barrel past, and all of this attention.

I do wonder, however:  what is the reality in this supposedly national election?  It is the frenzied activity in Ohio and a handful of other “battleground states,” or is it the quiet inactivity in the vast majority of the country?  How can an election produce any kind of meaningful mandate when the experience of voters during the campaign is so profoundly, diametrically different?