Friday, October 20, 2006

What's Still the Matter with Kansas?

There is a consistent refrain that is rising up as we creep closer and closer to the November elections: the current political climate is poisonous, and we are in desperate need of an antidote. Gridlock is as bad as it’s been in a generation, and there is a keen absence of space in the political sphere for rigorous yet sensible dialogue about real policy issues that Americans care about and that affect our lives most intimately. (A recent study by the Center for American Values ranks abortion and gay marriage as two of the least important issues to Americans in the 2006 vote, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the loud voices of the Religious Right.)

Because of a strong-armed hijacking of Congress by a few key leaders and a hostile takeover of the nation’s political dialogue by the extreme right, civil political discussion has been replaced by caustic attacks and ridiculous characterizations. For example, Dobson has expressed his displeasure with the Republicans, but he calls the Democratic alternatives “downright frightening,” as though they plan to hand over control to Al-Qaeda in their first few hours. Granted that there may be very real political and philosophical differences between the parties on certain issues, but the Religious Right treats someone who has a different opinion as a national security threat or a godless buffoon. What ever happened to sitting down at the same table, talking about the merits of our ideas in intelligent and respectful ways, being willing to admit that none of us knows everything or always has perfect policies, and working together for the common good of the country? Am I up in my sleep for thinking that’s how a two-party democracy is supposed to work?

But instead, civil dialogue and compromise are dead in the face of ideological zealotry and a thirst to be right at all costs. Rather than calls for constructive dialogue, humility, and compromise, we only hear demonizations and unthinking over-simplifications. Those (of either party) who support comprehensive immigration reform are accused of wanting to fling wide our gates to terrorists. Calls for an admission of failure in Iraq and a new tact are seen as weak, unpatriotic, and unsupportive of our troops. Criticisms of our gutting of the Geneva Convention are seen as wanting to hand over control of our own security to the international community. Mention of the separation of church and state means you are godless and see no place for faith in public life. Liberal, instead of being used according to its true political meaning, has become the new Communist; it has become a sinister foil, equated with giving handouts to everyone, instituting socialism, and driving God in America underground for good.

Americans are smarter than those gross over-simplifications. We want the restoration of a reasonable political dialogue about ideas, evidence, sensible values, and the common good for all Americans, not the monologue that continually throws the political hand grenades of abortion, gay marriage, and xenophobia, which only sidetrack us from making real progress. Such land mines are great for generating fear and getting people to the polls, but they provide little help in producing thoughtful, reasoned and evidenced ideas for our domestic and foreign policy, aside maybe from building multi-billion dollar fences. And while those “wedge” issues may carry weight and be genuine concerns for some people, Americans are hungry for sensible legislative solutions to those issues, not just election-time sloganeering to keep the Religious Right’s marionettes in power followed by years of inactivity.

But it isn’t just Democrats who are complaining. In Kansas, which hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s, many GOP candidates are defecting because there is no longer space for moderate Republicans in the fold. So far, nine Republicans have crossed party lines to run as Democrats just to find a place to fit within this poisonous and polarized atmosphere. Not caustic or divisive enough for the right-wing zealots of their own party, these nine have found a home running as Democrats. And the Johnson County Sun, which has only endorsed a handful of Democrats in its long history, is endorsing eight in this election alone. It seems that anymore, the traditional “right” and “left” are now both within the Democratic Party, and moderate Republicans are on the verge of extinction.

We don’t need all Democrats or all Republicans in Congress; our diversity of opinions should lead to vigorous discussion and ultimately, better policies. What we DO need to wrest control from the handful of right-wing extremists so that sensible politicians from both parties can run on real platforms that address issues like jobs, the economy, poverty, social security, immigration, health care, and national security without resorting to fear-mongering, divisive “wedge” issues, and a desire to legislate a narrow morality. While the Religious Right says that a Democratic vote is an “unthinkable alternative” for any well-meaning Christian, nine Republicans in Kansas are willing to take those chances in a decidedly red state because there is no longer a place for them in their own party.

What’s still the matter with Kansas is the same as what’s bothering the rest of the country: we are absolutely exhausted of the tactics of the extreme right, who may speak loudly but who speak for fewer and fewer of us. We will be best served as a nation to push out that extreme voice so that members of both parties can return to a rigorous yet civil discussion about public policy. We are tired of sensationalism and the contrived culture wars; we want respectful and thoughtful dialogue in the town square.


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