Handling the bullies in politics

Sam Smith

For many years now, the Republican right has engaged in a politics of cultural bullying that is the direct descendent of the southern segregationists. It is based on anathematizing a minority in order to solidify its own political base around false assumptions of purity and superiority. It is an illusion that deceives much of its own constituency into thinking that ultimately minor cultural differences are more important than such issues as economics, healthcare or public education. Thus it is not only mean, it is masochistic. One minority ends up being hurt by another that is being conned and hurt in other ways.

The illusion works best in a politics in which a large portion of the public is politically inert. That way you don’t have to convince a majority, you need only mobilize your own minority. It is a vile sort of politics that deliberately fosters hate and anger and is as alien from the American ideal as one can find. It is, in fact, far closer to the theocratic tyranny of the Taliban than to anything in our own best traditions.

One of the reasons the Republican right has gotten away with it so successfully, however, is that both the media and liberals have been willing to fight the battle precisely on the grounds that the right wishes: namely the presumption that one must choose sides in whatever cultural jihad it launches.

Thus we find pundit and Democratic pol alike groaning over the likely prospect of gay marriages becoming a major campaign issue. If matters follow their normal course, they will and the GOP will be delighted. But such a course has been disastrous to Democrats in the past so they might, for a change, think of doing something different.

Like changing the ground of the argument. Instead of letting the GOP define the issue as between morality and sin, the Democrats could reframe it as a debate between extremist bullies on one hand and moderate, fair minded Americans on the other.

Imagine, for example, a Democratic candidate who was asked in a debate, “What do you think about gay marriages” and who in reply said something like this:

“I’m a heterosexual and I’m married so I don’t think about it much at all. What does bother me is when one group in this country tries to foist their personal values on another, and even tries to enforce it with a constitutional amendment. That’s about as un-American as you can get. If you don’t like gay marriages, then don’t become a gay and don’t get married.

“I’m not asking you to approve of gay marriages anymore than I would ask you to believe in the Virgin birth or the apocalypse. But what if someone told you that it should be illegal to practice rites presaging the second coming of Christ? Should we have a constitutional amendment to ban that, too?

“What I am asking you to do is to be good, decent and fair-minded Americans and practice the sort of reciprocal liberty in which citizens say to each other, I will respect your liberty because I expect you to respect mine. We do not have to agree, we do not have to approve of each other, we do not even have to like either other, but we do have to share this land and our community fairly. That is what being an American is about.

“In my campaign I am trying to gain support of as wide a cross-section of America as I can. To do this, I may sometimes compromise, I sometimes equivocate, but I will not – as conservative politicians so often do – expel, isolate, and eliminate constituencies simply because they do not look or think like me. I will not sneakily encourage others to hate and bully. To do so is to take us back to shameful times, such as to that time less than 40 years ago when you could be arrested and jailed for being married to the wrong person – not then because of the person’s sex but because of their skin color.

“We live in a society in which, over the past few decades, the division over another cultural issue – abortion – has been the subject of a bitter, costly and ultimately pointless debate with few minds changed along the way. What if we had understood at the start that our proper goal was not to force everyone to agree with us, but to make sure that each side could practice its beliefs without interference by the other? That would have been the truly American solution to the problem.”

“Being American means living in close proximity with people whose values, intrinsic nature or behavior may not just be different, but which you may not like at all. Does that mean we just sit on our front porches and glare at our neighbors? Or worse? It doesn’t have to be that way.

“It is not a conservative or liberal matter and it is not an issue of morality; it is an issue of whether we will treat other Americans with fairness and respect or as playground bullies and cultural tyrants.”

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