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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

What Sets Us Apart

Regardless of where you stand in the current political divide, and assuming it isn’t at the extreme ends of the spectrum, what sets us apart is a set of fundamental views on how to govern our world. The traditional conservative vs. liberal divide centers on largely economic and political differences. But increasingly social views and those regarding individual rights, laws, freedoms and responsibilities have become the focus particularly among the religious right.

It's easy to fall into the trap of assigning glib representations to those who hold opposing views on governance. Big central versus smaller local government; regulation to ensure the welfare of the public; less regulation and freer markets. More services to everyone at the cost of higher taxes, vs lower taxes and reduced spending on social good. These differences are real not merely philosophic but if they were the only things that set us apart, though it would be difficult to reconcile them, it might be achievable. There was a time in fact when our political parties did just that—begrudgingly of course, but they did govern without the degree of animus and acrimony that is commonplace today.

I say that reconciliation might be conceivable because we have mechanisms that both sides could agree on to test the validity of their approach and examples in both historic and present day governance that we might look to as living laboratories. Of course, the likelihood of that happening is very slim because there are vested interests, not least of which are corporate boards and shareholders who stand to gain or lose from any significant departure from the status quo. But even if it were possible to restore an environment of political détente and realistic compromise, far more emotionally charged issues separating our views on individual rights and social matters are so intermingled as to render any solution infeasible.

When it comes to compromise on social issues it is an all or nothing battle—and the demonization of both sides in this war is palpably biblical. Again, at the risk of glib reductivism I would summarize the issues—all of them as a belief that people are inherently good and deserving of great latitude in the assertion of their individual rights—especially those governing what might be described as matters of morality, which rights should be strenuously defended by government and law—even at the expense of economic freedoms. The opposing view is based on the belief that our society is morally corrupt and sinful and laws must be enacted to prevent and reverse our decline even at the expense of denying individuals their rights and freedoms, even their lives.

Confounding matters further is the cognitive dissonance of those I will call the moralists opposing abortion but defending the right to bear arms and sustaining the death penalty—through the imposition of laws and regulations in some cases and the denial of laws and regulation in others. On the other end of the spectrum the humanists as I will call them, may agree that our society is in a sorry state but believe the cause has much more to do with repression, lack of education, and poverty than it does any inherent moral disposition, yet would enact laws that restrict certain individual rights in the belief that it is necessary for the protection of all.

As we lurch toward increasingly authoritarian rhetoric if not action, and contemplate the possibility of a civil disunion, whether violent or otherwise, cynical politicians fix on any subject which plays to what separates us rather than what unites us. Extremist voices and views confound our ability to listen to one another and place the overwhelming majority of our countrymen in the dubious position of contemplating the lesser of evils, not the betterment of all.

Most of us want pretty much the same things—the equal right to live our lives as we see fit without interference from others as long as we are not harming them; the ability to obtain the essential things we need to live our lives, food, shelter, healthcare, education in return for the reasonable investment of our labors; no more government, regulation or law than is absolutely necessary to prevent any one or any entity from impinging on our rights and freedoms while ensuring that we do not limit the rights of others. Our goal should not be to make our country, certainly not exclusively our country, great. We are citizens of a planet—but prisoners of a history that divides us by race, religion, and borders into separate countries vying for political, economic and sometimes religious supremacy. We should be working to make our planet great, to ensure it is healthy, safe, and free of oppression. But if we cannot even do that within our own borders what hope have we of doing so anywhere else?

If the stalemate climate and lack of meaningful governance of the past decade or so taught us anything it should be that no one wins as long as we are in violent opposition. No one can obtain or maintain complete power forever even by force. It is long past time we stop electing people who say they will defend what they profess are our views, and elect people who will listen, who will govern, who will move forward, if not perfectly than reasonably to maintain the intentions we had as a nation, as people of good will.

We don’t need or want any more political theater, nor do we want lawmakers who are unjust or disdain those of a different perspective. It’s long past time we elect men and women who seek balance, seek the improvement of our citizens, who place the welfare of the public ahead of all other considerations. Maybe it’s time we elect leaders not pretenders, narcissists, despots and demagogues. We need leaders who are able to separate their personal views from their responsibilities to act in the public good. If our society is not what we wish it to be, than it is we who made it that way—all of us, and it’s long past time we take responsibility for fixing it.

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