Growing through politics

It might have begun with John F. Kennedy, a Democrat and a Catholic, whose assassination left an indelible mark on my young mind. Certainly it was reinforced by my mother, who was a teacher, and later by the hippie/anti-war movement of the late ’60s when the radical stirrings at Fredonia State College infiltrated the local high school consciousness. Such was my indoctrination into the Democratic Party way of thinking.

Later, as a public-school teacher in New York state, I felt beholden to Democratic platforms, especially those supporting labor unions. And as an aspiring musician and writer, I held the belief that this party was more supportive of the arts, and that Republicans were primarily rich businessmen who profited through war. It wasn’t until later that I began to understand how little I really understood about the complexities of our political system and the interrelationships among branches of our government.

During the ’90s I succumbed to the charisma of Bill Clinton, whose speeches brought tears of pride to my eyes. He was so hopeful, so believable, so charming in voice and manner. In the early stages of the scandals that plagued him, I clung to the belief that it was all a Republican plot. Ken Starr and company were the devils. The impeachment of this president could not be justified.

In the end, however, it was not so much the sordid acts he committed that disturbed me; it was that he lied about it, again and again. I felt violated through his violations, and I lost faith in the party. I stopped watching the news and eschewed political discussions. Over time I began to see myself as politically independent.

I tried harder to see Republican points of view, and I was mildly humored by a close friend who offered a rough paraphrase of a Winston Churchill philosophy: if you are under 30 years old and a conservative, you have no heart; if you are over 30 and a liberal, you have no brains. My friend’s critical awareness regarding some of the wastefulness and disincentives-to-work associated Democratic policies was a kind of epiphany for me.

More importantly, it became clear that one president doesn’t make or break a nation. Abraham Lincoln did not create the Civil War — the divide between North and South had been festering for decades. Similarly, George W. Bush did not single-handedly bring about the crash of 2008. Certainly his staff might have better seen it coming, but the banking system’s inability/refusal to regulate itself properly had been going on far too long and greed in real estate had grown insidiously. The cost of health care had been skyrocketing nearly beyond repair long before the affordable health care act.

Today I remain an independent voter, despite my natural affinity to the party that, at least in principle, promotes policy that is charitable and humanitarian. These principles are also at the core of Catholicism. One might even argue that such values constitute a moral obligation among teachers, who must learn to forgive students, among doctors who must embrace the Hippocratic oath, and police officers who shoot only as a last resort. They are the foundations of civilized society. The hypocrisy and corruption within all these entities is a heavy cross to bear.

Of course politics has always been a highly contentious, mean-spirited, sometimes deadly game. Dating back to the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton pistol duel of 1804, the competition has been as intense as the stakes are high. However, the political arena today seems somehow different. There is a toxicity that goes beyond the usual back and forth attacks. It appears that some of the core institutions that have provided checks and balances in government are shaking in their foundations.

Meanwhile, the news media (having really no choice but to cover and cover) has become more a source of entertainment than of information, a kind of weird reality show. I feel like I am watching a professional wrestling bout, as one blustery performer grunts and grimaces and flexes while the other shakes its finger and threatens like an ineffectual grade school teacher. Meanwhile the commentators snipe away from their safe distance and the audience waits to boo or cheer after the next smack down. It seems that the loudest voices are the most ignorant.

So I have retreated into fantasy, and have conjured up a new leader for America, one that might embody awesome virtues and steer us back to reason and decency. I see this person as one who would exemplify the faith, kindness and candor of Jimmy Carter. He or she would have the steady strength and confidence of Ronald Reagan. There would be the honesty and commitment to education exemplified by Barbara Bush. This person would own the subtle sense of humor and artistic sensibilities of George W. Bush. There would be the intelligence and clarity of diction of Barack Obama, and beauty and social grace of Michele Obama. He or she would have demonstrated perseverance and bravery like John McCain.

Of course there is no one person who can be all this. My point is that we will never find someone truly great if we do not go beyond the boundaries of our political demagoguery. Instead, we will continue to be stuck with two poor choices, and the “swamp” will only thicken.