It’s Thanksgiving, but America’s family fights are nothing new
It’s Thanksgiving again. And yet again, families will gather around the dinner table to talk turkey, football … and politics. I hope that as we do, we try to keep things in perspective.
There’s no question we are a divided and partisan nation, bickering among ourselves, tweeting at each other and vigorously defending our own particular tribe. But it is hyperbole all its own to claim this polarization is something new under the sun.
To be sure, there is a lot to argue about these days. But we do ourselves and the progress of the country no favors when every argument becomes personal, when every talking point becomes an attack, and when every opponent becomes the devil.
The truth is, we’ve been yelling at each other since well before we even considered ourselves Americans.
The whole idea behind the Mayflower Compact, according to William Bradford, who was elected the first governor of the Puritan settlement in Plymouth, was to overcome the discord sown by what he called in his journal those “not well affected to unity and concord but gave some appearance of faction.” (Apparently, there were some early Red Sox fans aboard ship.)
And it didn’t get a whole lot better after that.
As president, George Washington was attacked by some newspapers as a monarchist (a slur in those days). Speaking directly to the sage of Mount Vernon himself in a letter, none other than Thomas Paine claimed, “The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”
Abraham Lincoln was labeled “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon” by his Army commander, George McClellan. His secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, wrote letters to friends about the “painful imbecility of Lincoln” and his administration’s venality and corruption. One New York newspaper said, “Barnum should buy and exhibit [Lincoln] as a zoological curiosity.”
Theodore Roosevelt was so fed up with both Republicans and Democrats that he tried to form his own party. “The old parties,” he scoffed, “are husks with no real soul within either.” He called President Taft, his old friend and protégé with whom he did battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, a “fathead” and a “puzzle wit.” And Taft, in turn, dismissed Roosevelt a “flatterer of the people,” “a dangerous egotist,” and, yes, wait for it, a “demagogue.”
Some Republicans in Congress were less intent on helping FDR win World War II than they were on trying to dismantle the New Deal.
Truman was cast by many Americans as evil incarnate for firing Gen. MacArthur as commander of US forces in Korea. One letter writer — in terms that should be familiar to us today — accused him of selling out the country to the Russians.
“The Kremlin should give you a 21-gun salute,” she wrote. “And they probably will, aimed right at our bewildered forces in Korea.”
John F. Kennedy faced bitter prejudice running as the first Catholic president.
The ongoing war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 shook our faith in ourselves. And the Watergate scandal in the following decade shook the very foundations of our faith in government.
Even the election of the first black president in 2008 couldn’t scrub from our scrolls deep-seated feelings of resentment and racism and bigotry — to the contrary, it reminded us of how many Americans still harbor such feelings.
Of course, today we can yell at each other in real time over social media and on cable TV. That much is certainly new.
We now can know immediately what our neighbors think and how they voted and what God they worship, and that can immediately shape and perhaps dim our views of them in turn.
We can know immediately what our President thinks about his opponents, his press coverage, his preferred candidates for office and even who he is hiring and firing — sometimes before they know themselves that they are being hired or fired.
Perhaps as we look back on our history, we should try to remember the kinder, gentler side of it.
Americans freed two continents. We spearheaded the formation of the United Nations. We implemented the Marshall Plan. We stopped the spread of communism. We’ve come close to eradicating AIDS and the Ebola virus.
We have protected the lives and livelihoods of untold millions by being willing to sacrifice the lives of our own troops. We have championed human rights, education and hygiene — and still do — in places where men and women still only know persecution, fear, famine and disease.
We don’t always get it right. We have miscalculated and failed to act. We have fallen prey to our own avarice at times. But, in the main, we have attempted to make a better America by making a better world, and the effort has made us better citizens of that world.
Polarization is nothing new to us, but neither is altruism. The two work in tandem. For all our grousing about one another, we would have to agree that our best and most humane policies are made through debate and discussion, and most critically, by listening to one another.
Compromise is one of the things we Americans do best, or at least it used to be. It isn’t about sacrificing one’s principles; it’s about trying to advance those principles through honest and reasoned argument. It’s about keeping the personal out of the politics.
As Sen. William Fulbright once put it in “The Price of Empire,” “Accusations of unpatriotism drenched in scorn are a means of stopping debate, not of starting them.”
We need to start more debate — honest debate about the issues. But that’s tough to do.
A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 53% of Americans believe talking about politics with people they disagree with is generally stressful and frustrating … and those numbers are up from just two years ago.
That should make for a fun Thanksgiving, shouldn’t it?
But we don’t have to accept those numbers. We don’t have to be civil to one another — and history would suggest we won’t be — but we do have a responsibility to talk about things that matter, precisely because those things matter.
We can insult the other side and gripe about our division, or we can try to embrace the fact that some of those differences actually highlight important perspectives we ought to consider before making our unmaking national policy.
We’ve been yelling at each other for a long time. Maybe it’s time to start listening.