What connection do air conditioning, airlines and education have with today’s overheated political climate? Each has contributed to the lack of understanding, empathy and tolerance. And the results are increasingly devastating.
Consider recent events:
In Arlington, Va., five people were injured June 14 in an assassination attempt on a Republican congressional baseball team as they practiced for a charity baseball game. On social media, some people celebrated their injuries as just deserts.
The gunman, who later died of injuries sustained when Capitol police officers returned fire, had reportedly asked first whether it was Republicans or Democrats on the field. He was a supporter of Bernie Sanders, the losing Democrat in the presidential elections.
Also in Virginia, a 17-year-old Muslim girl was beaten to death, allegedly by a 22-year-old man in the country illegally from El Salvador. Police declared it a road rage-related attack. The girl’s father, an Egyptian immigrant, insists the attack was because of her Muslim headgear. Then someone set fire to the makeshift memorial for her.
In metro Atlanta, engagement between the two candidates in the 6th District Congressional runoff race was civil. Even so, the campaigns reported signs being stolen and threatening calls and envelopes containing suspicious powder. (It turned out to be baking powder.)
At colleges across the nation are incidents of white students being labeled racist; students demanding “safe spaces;” guest speakers being shouted down, intimidated and attacked, and conservative students and faculty facing backlash for their positions.
Even the U. S. Supreme Court weighed in [last] week on the assault on free speech. In a case involving an Asian band named The Slants, justices felt the need to issue not one but two opinions reinforcing that a federal trademark law banning offensive names is unconstitutional:
“Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought we hate.”
“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all.”
How is it that so many Americans seem increasingly hostile toward differing political and philosophical views? In summary, government expanded as people in the (literal) swamp that is Washington became more comfortable thanks to electricity and air-conditioning. Now it’s difficult to “drain the swamp.”
Further, ask political veterans and they’ll tell you Washington discourse went South after politicians, their staff and families found cheap and frequent flights home. Shorter stays in the District meant fewer families socializing at dinner or on the sports field and fewer bipartisan friendships forming. That eroded compromise, polite discourse and the understanding that individuals left their political personas at the door after hours. Today, media exploit that in their ratings game.
Parallel to that is the growing disinterest in teaching civic education. “Put simply, [K12] schools in the United States don’t teach the country’s future citizens how to engage respectfully across their political differences,” says The Atlantic magazine.
“American higher education has generally abandoned its obligation to prepare graduates who have the knowledge and understanding to take up meaningful roles in our free society,” adds the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
It’s a shame that, instead of striving for common ground through persuasion, compassion and compromise, so many young Americans grow up in the intolerant belief that disagreement makes the other person/side wrong, stupid, evil, racist or fascist – though few bother to even Google the definition of the last.
If there is anything that can save this county, it’s a commitment to return to civic education in schools. It’s an understanding equal treatment doesn’t mean equal outcomes. It’s civil discourse, from the bottom up and the top down, so that this nation can once again meet in the middle, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (from the 1892 original version of the Pledge of Allegiance).
“No one – no one – should ever feel their life threatened over their political beliefs and positions,” U.S. Rep-elect Karen Handel said this week in a gracious, conciliatory acceptance speech after she won the 6th District runoff. “And I say that, ladies and gentlemen, in regard to both sides of the political aisle.”
Note on the title: “Can We All Get Along?” were the words of Rodney King, an African-American resident of Los Angeles violently arrested by Los Angeles police. The acquittal in a state court of the four defendants, charged with using excessive force, provided the spark that led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
[Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]