A few items from this week’s newspapers, two from South Carolina and two national:
Item One: Attorney General Alan Wilson called David Pascoe (the special prosecutor that Wilson appointed) a “liar” over his handling of a public corruption case. It began with a barrage of harsh words from Wilson delivered with great heat and passion and ended with a flurry of papers filed in court. Gov. Nikki Haley called the whole thing “an embarrassing mess.” There’s no reason to think it won’t continue for a while.
Item Two: This week State Sen. Lee Bright introduced legislation to regulate which bathroom transgender folks could use. The bill was filed accompanied by emotionally charged, dog whistle rhetoric guaranteed to make a certain small portion of the electorate start politically salivating.
Bright’s bill follows similar measures in Georgia and North Carolina and the response has been quick in coming. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the bational basketball and football leagues, to literally hundreds of national and international companies and executives have all actively opposed these states’ actions. As one Georgia lawmaker said, “This is 2016 and the people supporting this bill want to take us back to the 1800s.”
Item Three: On the national level, opinion polls now show a majority of Americans have a negative opinion of both Hillary Clinton (55 percent negative) and Donald Trump (69 percent negative). Think about this for a moment. The actual campaign with the two party nominees has not even begun and the two people most likely to be their party nominees have already turned off a majority of the country.
With seven more months of nastiness to go before the November election, it’s quite possible both candidates may have negative ratings cracking 70-80 percent. How can anyone govern the country when overwhelming numbers of the American people don’t like them or trust them -- before they even take office and begin to try and govern?
Item Four: This week former President Bill Clinton was making a speech on behalf of his wife and was heckled by a handful of people from the Black Lives Matter movement. Heckling of politicians by Black Lives Matter is nothing new and by now one would think a politician as experienced as Bill Clinton could handle these disruptions easily. Instead, in the words of one cable TV pundit, “He lost it.” He got in such a shouting match, even he recognized he had crossed the line and the next day said he regretted the incident.
Such was this week in politics. What makes it so extraordinary is it was not extraordinary but ordinary. This has become the new normal in politics -- what one analyst called “the politics of personal destruction.”
OK, I know what comes next -- “politics has always been nasty … the campaigns just reflect our larger culture … people get the politicians they deserve … it was worse in the old days…” and on and on it goes.
Yes, all of this is true, but it is possible to do things differently.
In the divisive and hostile era of Vietnam protest politics, there was at least some important policy at stake; today it is all personal attacks. In the earlier era, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was known as “the happy warrior” because he was. Bobby Kennedy could be a ruthless political street fighter but he was also the candidate of “some men see things as they are and ask why; I dream of things that never were and say why not.”
Ronald Regan was, above all else, the candidate of sunny optimism and even after seven years of political vitriol one can still see strains of Obama’s hope and change coming through.
Is there anything we, average citizens, can do about all this? To me, the answer is “no, not much; but, yes, a little.”
None of us are a match for the avalanche of negativity of cable TV politics. We don’t have other choices; the candidates of the two parties are pretty much set and there are no other real alternatives. Our one vote in a national or state election is not going to make much difference. All true -- that’s the “no, not much” part.
But there is also the “yes, a little” part. First, we can just not participate in the political trash talking going on all around us every day -- in the break room at work, at the weekend get together with friends and even at Wednesday night suppers at church. Just don’t join in.
We can change things.
Segregation-era racial divisions in the South began to change when people changed -- when ordinary people changed their language, began to slowly open their minds and hearts and, eventually, extended their hands. It happened without fanfare, it happened quietly on the personal level, it happened millions of times across the South, it happened in big cities and small towns.
It happened simply because people acted of their own accord because they came to know, deep down in their hearts, something different was not only better, but possible.
It happened slowly at first, but it happened. And today, no one wants to go back.
If “we the people” can change our attitudes about race -- and thus change society’s attitudes -- then we can also change attitudes about politics. We can change the politics of personal destruction.
We did it once, we can do it again.