This week Gallup announced that the United States public is historically polarized in its ideological views. This is tragic news for the United States, and anyone who wants to know why merely needs to understand the significance of recent emissions from the Stygian depths of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
Today is the Florida primary, and if rationality reigned supreme, Newt Gingrich would receive as many votes as the write-in total for Pee Wee Herman. Once he was unable to thrill the easily thrillable by making grandstanding declarations against the bias of the media—the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel—Newt, as always, revealed himself as temperamentally, ethically and rationally unqualified to lead the nation, or, quite probably, a plumbing crew. He made irresponsibly grandiose proposals, like colonizing the moon at a time when the nation can’t afford PBS. He attacked President Obama while simultaneously using Obama’s class warfare tactics to denigrate his fellow millionaire, Mitt Romney. Once a pious advocate of Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” that Republicans should not attack each other, he called Romney a liar, a liberal (which, of course, is much worse than a liar at the Right Pole). He heralded an obscure out-of-date robo-poll as showing that he was running neck-and-neck with the former Massachusetts governor in Florida, when he knows that he has lost ground in the race, as every legitimate poll now shows. He made dark hints that Romney—pssst! He’s a Mormon! Be afraid!—-was biased against “our religions.” He threatened, claiming that he would reject any debate with President Obama that had a moderator from the evil, biased media, an especially ridiculous pledge since the main argument ( facile myth, by the by) for Newt’s candidacy has been that he would thrive in Presidential debates. And, of course, he whined, claiming that his precipitous fall was the fault of liars, the press, the establishment—anybody but Newt. If there is an ethical value he hasn’t breached lately—let’s see: responsibility, accountability, respect, fairness, prudence, honesty, caring, kindness, process, integrity, loyalty—just wait a while.
In short, Gingrich has behaved as he has always behaved under stress, as the mean-spirited, irresponsible, Machiavellian, untrustworthy, self-centered and destructive man that he is. He was waving a huge phosphorous orange flag reading, “I have no business being President!” for all to see. Thanks, Newt!
But a mind-boggling number of ideologues on the right can’t see it. They refuse to see it, because when you are stuck at an ideological pole, reality no longer matters. What matters is that Gingrich is a conservative, closer to their pole than the ideologically flexible Romney, and any references to Newt’s character are “the politics of personal destruction, ” because, you see, character is irrelevant at the poles. How could it not be? After all, the other pole has people of good character, and they are still wrong. “Annoy a liberal, ” Sarah Palin said on Fox. “Vote for Newt!” Yes, that’s a good reason to vote for presidential candidate—to annoy people you don’t like.
When you occupy an ideological pole, you become incapable of open-mindedness, reason, self-improvement or change. You can’t learn, you can’t absorb new data objectively. Everything is automatically squeezed and distorted to fit a pre-determined construct, or is ignored entirely. Lock-step masquerades as integrity. Reason, consideration, compromise, practicality, prudence—not to mention respect, civility, fairness, honesty and kindness—become impossible. The pole is everything. And lest anyone think that by using Newt-blindness as an example, I am rating one pole as superior to the other, I am not. Watch MSNBC for about five minutes to see what I mean.
Rush Limbaugh has a rant that he trots out regularly about the uselessness of moderates. It is a deceitful rant, because he is evoking images of moderates as people who refuse to fully engage in difficult issues, and whose answer to ever problem is “it depends,” meaning, in most cases, “it depends which opinion I heard last.” He is right that such people are useless in a democracy, except to be manipulated by those with more energy, passion, credentials, visibility, fame or certitude. Those are not really moderates, however, but just pliantly ignorant. They have no idea how to examine an issue, so they don’t—in their case, “open mind” means “empty mind.” True moderates, however, are those fair and rational enough to know that there are no ideological templates that work equally well with every problem. They may generally agree with more conservative or liberal positions, but they know that complex problems involve complex solutions, and artificial rules about what must or must never be done just makes some problems unsolvable. They know that people of differing philosophies and points of view are enlightening, not stupid; essential, not evil. The poles, on the other hand, are great places for the empty minds to hang out..,..there, or at Occupy D.C. The poles provide substitutes for thought. They make it easy. Conservative–GOOD! Liberal—BAD!
Polarization is the antithesis of ethics. It divides populations into warring camps whose objective is to win, not to do good, because the poles preclude objective analysis of what good is. Ethics, on the other hand, presupposes that we are all on the same team, and that doing the right thing requires cooperation, not combat.
The nation desperately needs a transformative leader who rejects the poles…as Peter Wehner describes him in Commentary, a leader who would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger; who would call for an end of a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” Such a leader would pledge to help the country “rediscover our bonds to each other” and to “get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” He would “cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past.” We need leader who will proclaim an approach to discourse that is alien to the poles, who will say, and mean it, “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”
A man claimed to be that leader; his name was Barack Obama. He told us that the nation had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord”by electing him. In his inaugural address, he declared “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
And then, without the leadership skills to deliver on his soaring promises and unable to handle the intractable opposition of one pole, he retreated to the other.
But there are no ethics at the poles.
Only doctrine, intolerance, arrogance, hate, blindness…