I miss Ronald Reagan. Even his harshest critics must admit that he had an unflagging belief in the general goodness of the average human being, a commitment to the American experiment and faith in the ability of most people to make decisions in their own best interests without undue meddling by officious busybodies.
Above all, Ronald Reagan -- like a number of other truly great American political leaders from both sides of the aisle -- had the ability to inspire Americans to see the best in themselves and their neighbors. We are stronger as a people, better as a country, when we can do so.
What are we now? A nation ripped apart by politicians who pander to this group and that, inflaming outrage and encouraging finger-pointing, capitalizing on fear and fomenting hatred by false accusations and name-calling, raising grievance-mongering to an art form.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz issued a statement after Donald Trump's primary wins on Tuesday March 15, saying, "Let's ... be clear: this is not a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. This is the culmination of years of divisive and extreme politics embraced by Republican leaders."
That's rich, coming from a party that has spent the last 40 years (and even more stridently the last 10) calling whites "racists" and Christians "bigots" and "haters"; declaring men to be incipient rapists in an utterly non-existent "war on women"; accusing defenders of Second Amendment rights of not caring about the deaths of crime victims, and those concerned about the solvency of Social Security as people who want to "push Granny off a cliff."
The message for the party comes from the top down, and President Obama has been at the forefront of the hostility. He ran in 2008 as a unifier, but has certainly not governed as one. Cops are "acting stupidly," business owners "didn't build that," small-town working-class people are "bitter," "clinging to their guns or their religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." When Muslim extremists slaughtered Christians, Obama chastised us about the Crusades. Vice President Joe Biden, at his most insipid and deceitful, guffawed to an audience of black Americans, saying that Republicans "are gonna put y'all back in chains." Obama's first attorney general, Eric Holder, called us "a nation of cowards."
This attitude has filtered down through the media, into academia and throughout American culture. It is ubiquitous.
I am not a Trump supporter. But as I have written on multiple occasions, Trump's rise is a function of Americans' being fed up with their concerns being ignored, belittled or recast as hatred toward others. Americans who live on the Mexican border see, day in and day out, the perilous consequences of an open border with a violent drug war on the other side. With 94 million Americans out of the workforce -- over one-third of the adult population -- people are worried about the loss of jobs, the fiscal irresponsibility of promising "free" benefits to everyone and the long-term stability of our social safety net. Their concerns are legitimate. They are tired of being called names. Yes, they are angry.
The word that commentators are using to describe the current political (and cultural) climate is "toxic." No kidding. But where are the inspiring statesmen and women, the cultural leaders, the media personalities who can defuse this inflammatory situation?
This past week, I read a wonderful article titled "Friendship From Above," written by Providence College professor Anthony Esolen. In his essay, he extols the virtues of the institutions that he says "effectively bring people together to forge strong and lifelong friendships, bridging differences of race, ethnicity, education, and wealth. " Professor Esolen makes a compelling (if brief) case for those institutions -- the military, sports and the church -- as places where legitimate friendship develops and flourishes. But it was his description of friendship itself that pulled at my heart as I read it:
"You don't wring an apology from your friend for every one of his shortcomings. You don't let your friend know he will lose your friendship if you cross him in opinion. If your friend speaks incautiously, you overlook it, and do not let your feelings be hurt. You don't put the worst construction on your friend's words or deeds. You don't follow your friend with a forensic team searching for error and sin. You don't lay to your friend's charge the sins of his forebears. You overlook much and forgive the rest, because you too are no saint."
True friendship is born of love. Not merely love of the friend, but love of friendship and of peace and of kindness generally. Americans do love friendship and peace and kindness. Why can we not treat each other like this? Imagine how different our college campuses would be, our political debates would be, our government would be, if we assumed the best about each other, rather than the worst.
The kind of leader that America desperately needs right now is one who has a larger perspective; who genuinely likes people; who sees and understands that beneath the heated rhetoric and the baseless accusations and the old wounds daily rubbed raw, most Americans are kind and decent people who want the best for their families, and for others as well.
We need the kind of leader who can inspire Americans to rise above our differences. But I seriously question whether that is what we will get.
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