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We Must Stop Playing Small
| Political Waves

I regret to inform you that we have now officially entered the campaign season of 2010. If you do not follow politics, even deliberately avoid them, you may shrug and say, "So what?" The 'what' is an increase in rhetoric, posture and promise high pitched enough to make one wince. As we're only a week or two into the season, we have yet to notice the change in tempo. With so many dire national predicaments on so many levels, candidates sniping at each other seems small potatoes. The decibels are sure to rise.

Planet Waves
Alexander Hamilton dueling with Aaron Burr. From a Gutenberg file of a 1902 book.
So what if Florida Governor Charlie Crist made the mistake of giving Obama a man-hug and had to bail out of the Republican Party to run for the Senate as an Independent? So what if Senator Bob Bennett in Utah lost his primary challenge because he dared cross the aisle to work toward a bipartisan health care reform bill? So what if the Governor of Arkansas had to change his position on evolution in order to stay in the race?

As we prepare ourselves for campaign shenanigans and bemoan the lack of civility in our nation, historians remind us that American politics have always looked this way. Some cite the infamous duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a bit over two hundred years ago. Burr had made 'scurrilous' remarks about Hamilton, and the tit/tats escalated into a shootout that ended Hamilton's life and Burr's political career.

Can you imagine Joe Biden meeting Tim Geithner on the Boston Common today, dueling to the death over a personal slur? If I could resurrect Mr. Hamilton and bring him up to speed, perhaps he could tell me if an 'honorable' end is preferable to the Swiftboaters' psychic death-by-a-thousand-cuts that ended the career of paraplegic Senator Max Cleland and blunted the considerable influence of Senator John Kerry.

Half a century after the Hamilton-Burr duel, politics had lost even more civility. Martin Scorcese's 2002 epic, Gangs of New York, gave us a look at the politics of Bowery Boys, Dead Rabbits and Tammany Hall in the 1840s. Historians agree that while Scorsese took liberties with details and the bloody showdowns at Five Points weren't quite as brutal as depicted, the facts were essentialy accurate. The gangs referenced in Scorcese's title were called political clubs, volatile and armed. Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting leader of the Natives, famously carried hatchets and used them with impunity. Politics is power, and nothing much has changed through the centuries.

So what? Politics can turn deadly, as they did for Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy. Well over half a million Americans lost their lives in the Civil War, a political struggle born of economic as well as cultural schisms. As the thin veneer of civilized dialogue wears thin, we should remind ourselves that these events happened not so very long ago.

While emergencies blindside us, political radicalism expands. With so much on our national plate already, another election cycle begins with the voices too loud and the accusations too overblown. In knee-jerk response, local electorates will choose the inexperienced over the experienced, the cultural conservatives over the moderate, and political purity over the ability to compromise. We are in a partisan lock, the civil among us chastened for not playing hardball. We are panicked by the prospect that things will get worse without examining how they came to be, and we're determined to punish somebody for our outrageous circumstances. We're playing a small and mean-spirited game.

While government struggles to right itself, the conservative meme that it is too big and too inept has taken hold. Individual states initiate frivolous lawsuits against government policy, with over 30 attempting to limit the restructure of health care law. In Utah and Oklahoma, a woman's right to choose has become almost nonexistent, despite federal law. Arizona has legislated against teaching ethnic studies, and Tennessee is poised on requiring hard proof of citizenship at the polls. State governors openly discuss secession. These "united" states have the vicious unity of stray cats in a bag.

Human nature works against us as we enter this election year. What we fear has become the totality of our conversation, limiting our ability to sit down together for a civil exchange on strategy and policy. Obama is the exception, undaunted in pushing ahead bits and pieces of reform. In a less extreme political season I suspect we'd like him better. Because it's not his style, we're spared the hubristic stagecraft that gave us events like George Bush declaring 'victory' in flightsuit and codpiece. Yet the liberals could have used a few more skyrockets these last months, to celebrate some impressive 'firsts.'

Earlier this spring we succeeded in regulating health insurance providers and extending benefits to millions who have gone without health care. This week we passed a bill to audit the Fed and scour their books for the missing trillion dollars that has gone into secret loans. Imagine that -- we have broken through the big power barrier that is the Federal Reserve! Now the oil companies are under intense scrutiny and regulations are forthcoming. The dark secrets of unregulated power are spilling out and the back-peddling has begun.

We remain too focused on all that's wrong to celebrate our victories or count them as gain. Half of us want big change now, FDR style. The other half want a return to the Shining City on the Hill that Ronnie Reagan promised. If the Democrats are too disgruntled by slow and difficult progress to go to the polls, the Baggers and Republicans will change the makeup of our Congress, and a very uncivil war will begin in earnest. If that happens, we'll become the kind of people they would have recognized at Five Points, weapons in hand and prepared to win by any brutal means available.

It's election year and you'll hear it all before this is over. Arm yourself with solutions, not finger-pointing. Welcome a discussion, avoid a shouting match. Don't blame, propose. Dwell on commonalities, not divisions. We simply cannot allow ourselves to become the reactive mob that some in the world suspect we are. The more tribal we become, the more the nation will fracture. This is a time to grit our teeth, leave our hatchet at home, and come to the table for civil debate and cooperation. We have mutual problems to solve and we can't solve them by playing small.

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