U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s recent remarks about the state of political discourse in our country pretty well echo my own thoughts on the matter. “There’s probably more acrimony, divisiveness, hatred in politics than I’ve seen since I came here 16 years ago,” the retiring District 5 congressman assessed during his final town hall meeting in Mineola.
It’s hard to know if he was talking specifically about Washington, D.C., or if his observation extends to the broader society. The contagion of polarization is endemic nationwide, turbo-charged by social media, cable news and talk radio. And as the vortex of outrage rotates faster, more and more people, I fear, will be spun to the fringes, where compromise and pragmatism are mocked while anger and obstruction reign supreme. It’s a place where reasoned debate is ridiculed as Pollyanna and where a take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-cost mentality is celebrated. It’s a fight ring where Lefty Libtard dukes it out with Righty Rethuglican.
Hensarling spoke of his unwillingness to attack the character of his political rivals, to not deride their motives or question their patriotism. Recently, Larry Tucker, my colleague in Quitman, wrote of his belief that sturdy friendships transcend political differences. So despite the cacophony of political acrimony, I hope the sentiments expressed by Tucker and Hensarling prevail across the land. The alternative – a further erosion of civility and a heightened sense of grievance– is frightening.
Our history shows that groups and individuals have taken dark turns before, expressing their outrage or trying to advance an agenda through violence.
Domestically, the most deadly example of violent dissent is the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which left 168 people dead. Bombings inspired by political grievances also rocked the country during the 1970s and early 1980s. FBI statistics show that the United States experienced more than 2,500 bombings during an 18-month period in 1971-72 by extremists dedicated to “social justice.”
The point is fringe elements generally aren’t interested in entertaining an opposing viewpoint or giving ground to advance a larger objective. Thankfully, today’s extreme ideologues don’t show much appetite for bombing, but neither do they play well with others. They’re sadly deficient in the art of compromise. They excel at sowing discord, at gumming up the works, at pointing blame, at breeding contempt among people. The fringe has left a deepening imprint on politicians on the left as well as the right, resulting in Congressional inertia on matters large and small.
Hensarling laments that Congress has failed to address what he sees as a looming financial calamity caused by spiraling debt and entitlement spending. This year’s budget deficit is projected to hit close to $800 billion. Next year’s is expected to be about $1 trillion – this during a period of strong economic growth. Predictably, Republicans blame Democrats for the sea of red ink, and Democrats blame Republicans. But really, I wonder if the failure to act boils down to a lack of wisdom, a lack of will or a lack of guts. It takes uncommon courage when the fringe puts you in the crosshairs.