My wife and I took in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood last year when it came out. Encompassing twelve years of filming, Boyhood gently breaks new ground as viewers watch its characters grow, develop, and age. In one of the opening scenes, siblings Sam (played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei) and Mason (played by Austinite Ellar Coltrane) seek out their mother’s attention via a good old-fashioned sibling yelling fight. “Mom! Tell her to quit it!” What younger brother wouldn’t yell for his mom to tell his older sister to be quiet when she annoyingly sings and dances out Britney Spears’s Oops! . . . I Did It Again in his face?
My brother and I used to pull crap like that all the time; not mugging Brittany, but slamming an imaginary Mike Nesmith axe in the other one’s face, among other pranks. Only 13 months and mere weeks apart, my brother Mark and I used to go at it competitively and contentiously. It’s a miracle we didn’t drive our poor mother out of her mind. (Although, back in the day when embarking on a trip of any sort our mom would instinctively answer our constant query of Where are we going? with the stock reply of Crazy.) But something happened as my brother and I hit our teenage years and headed off to college: we realized we were on the same team. Brothers – family – yes, teammates.
Witnessing the political behavior that emanates from Washington DC (and from other capitols across the country) is akin to watching small children – siblings, no less – fight and argue, kick and scream, and without fail, blame the other. Of course, it’s always been this way and this is how democracy works. Partly true, but things are markedly worse now than they’ve been for a long time. How nostalgic to remember President Ronald Reagan (Republican red) and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (Democratic blue) in action: they agreed that before 6:00 p.m. it was all politics, and after that designated hour they were to be on cordial behavior. Reagan even threw a seventieth birthday party for O’Neill at the White House. They saw themselves as adversaries, and not mortal enemies. Today’s political hyper-partisanship traces back to Newt Gingrich’s strategy as the Republicans, in 1994, took majority control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. It was a brilliant strategy that brought an end to an entrenched status quo: Destroy the institution to save it – throw the majority bums out. But, unfortunately, that same strategy has been the modus operandi for both dominant political parties ever since, producing ample gridlock which helps maintain the status quo. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (Basic Books, 2012) argue that political polarization is at an all-time high in American society. And that’s going some 150 years back to the time of Reconstruction.
Blue ruts and red ruts. Not only our politicians, but many citizens are stuck in what I call blue and red ruts. Many people are stuck in place not moving forward, like a spinning car wheel stuck in a rut, not able to perform its task of moving the car forward, but only digging the rut deeper and deeper. Many citizens, of course, align themselves with one of the two major political parties. We all have our preferences and heartfelt convictions. But to be hyper-partisan to the point where one side feels as if the other side has no legitimate ideas or input? If you are a committed Democrat, do you truly feel the country would be better off if everyone was a Democrat? And putting the shoe on the other foot, would we be better off if we all were Republicans – every single one of us? How many of us – aligned with one of the dominant political parties – actually have adult conversations (without temper tantrums or name calling) on important societal topics with a friend or acquaintance aligned with the opposing political party? Think about the possibilities for positive change in our society if we turned off Fox News and MSNBC and actually conversed one with another in a civil manner . . . and then acted upon our convictions in public service to benefit the common good.
Diversity – different parts working together, carrying out specific tasks – moves us forward. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims in his book Future Tense (Shocken, 2009), ideology is “the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world.” Partisans want to have their way; that’s normal. But they also realize in a big world it’s good to get along with others, share, and not pout (too often). Hyper-partisans, on the other hand, like siblings who can only fight and whine, don’t get along with those who are “different” and certainly don’t want to share or cooperate. That’s not how families or democratic societies function at their best. Getting stuck in a rut – no matter the color – that’s not much good for anyone.
It’s much better to live out and recover the democratic understanding of politics as the art of the possible. Impossible? Time to call out (and vote out when possible) the hyper-partisans who act more like children than adults.
If you like what is written in this blog post, you’ll like what I have to say in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014). It’s available at this link, and at other venues where books and ebooks are sold.