That line from the classic Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke, could describe politics in the United States today.
It’s much worse than people talking past each other or even ignoring each other. Opposing sides use the same words but not the same language. They look at the same events and see totally different things happening. If you’ve been paying attention to the news in recent weeks, you can probably identify lots of examples of your own, but let me offer a few to illustrate my point.
After the death of five policemen in Dallas, President Obama went to that troubled city to offer his condolences as well as reflections on police-community relations in this country. Most of the commentary that I saw described his remarks as thoughtful and sensitive, indeed among his best public comments. Sadly, he’s had a lot of practice as “Comforter-in-Chief”, and most observers thought he struck just the right tone.
But not everyone. I read a couple of rants on the Internet about how many times the President used the word “I” in his comments, proof positive that he didn’t really care about the dead police. Not to mention the objection that he spoiled things by mentioning the black men shot by police in his comments on the shootings in Dallas. I’m pretty confident that people expressing that sentiment have not approved of a single thing that Obama has done since he took office.
That’s certainly a pattern he has had to confront as president. Even when he has adopted ideas favored by Republicans in the past, he has been attacked. His health care plan, modeled closely after that one that Mitt Romney championed in Massachusetts, is one of many examples. Those examples make it clear that there is nothing the President could have said or done to win the approval of his critics.
The chasm isn’t limited to views about the president. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in public comments blasted Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. He immediately suggested that she should resign from the Court for meddling in politics and was joined by many of the same Republicans who don’t think their responsibilities include holding hearings on Court nominees.
More interestingly, however, neither Trump nor his acolytes were ever troubled by the intemperate public speeches of the late Antonin Scalia. Using the standard they want to apply to Ginsberg, Scalia should have recused himself, for example, from all cases involving LGBT parties.
How about the outrage–what’s a more intense version of that word?–at Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails while Secretary of State? As a Democrat who plans to vote for her in November, I think she made a big mistake with her initial decision and with how she explained her actions over the months since it became public. However, while FBI Director Jim Comey was highly critical of her actions, he concluded that she had not violated any laws.
Comey, who had been highly regarded by conservatives until that pronouncement, has been pilloried for rendering his professional judgment because it didn’t confirm the political preferences of Republicans in Congress. Yet, nary a word has been heard from any of them in response to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s revelation that he too used a private server and didn’t see any violation of the law in Clinton’s actions.
Let me offer one more example: the differing ways in which reactions are divided whenever there is a mass shooting in this country. Despite the pleas for a serious conversation about gun violence, no such thing has happened in decades.
Rather, I’d like to suggest that we all listen to the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown. He first pointed out that the police were doing their job and made a plea for lawmakers to do theirs. Brown went on to note that in the midst of the attack on police in that City, it was hard to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys” because so many people were openly carrying around the scene of the shooting. It’s a cinch that none of those “good” guys helped the police deal with the assassin, but they did add to the confusion.
And now we have the prospect fast approaching of a Wild West situation in the streets of Cleveland next week. Protesters will show up to express their opposition to Donald Trump and the Constitution of the United States will tell them that they have every right to do that.
Somehow, in this upside world in which we are now living, there will be Trump supporters in the streets as well, asserting that those Constitutionally-protected protests somehow threaten them. And the problem is that those people will in some cases be carrying guns because they are allowed to. What can possibly go wrong?
Some people in this country, whenever something bad happens, quickly assert that it is Barack Obama’s fault. I suppose they have a point in that Obama insists on continuing to be Black.
This massive breakdown in communications has been building for years. What is particularly frightening is that we now have on the public stage a demagogue who is encouraging hatred and bigotry, telling his followers that it’s okay to build walls and marginalize groups because of their race, religion or ethnicity, and setting the example that anyone who disagrees should be attacked verbally and perhaps even physically.
The Trump candidacy is a direct result of our failure to communicate. Unless he is soundly defeated in November, the democracy that we have cherished since the founding of this country is in real peril.