What have we learned?
Reading the highly-emotional Twitter and Facebook posts of the past couple of weeks, I have to say we haven't learned much.
America has a strong and vibrant political system. There are places for many different voices, and that's a good thing. Frankly, I don't think either the Democrats or the Republicans (or any of the alternate parties) have all the right answers.
It's good to be passionate about what you believe, no matter where you are on the political spectrum. It says something about this country that so many of us, on the left and on the right, care so much about this country. But we've got to make changes in how we process that, and how we talk to each other about it.
I was struck during this campaign at the absolute, overwhelming dominance of negative discourse. This was not an election about "my candidate, and my party, have a vision for this country." This was an election about throwing mud at the other guy. That's not a foundation on which to build a political system. If you spent more of this election season bashing Barack Obama and/or Mitt Romney than you did talking about whichever candidate or party you support and why they'd do a good job, you are part of the problem with this country. Period.
Part of it has to do with the way our campaign finance laws are set up. Comedian Stephen Colbert did a great public service this year with his demonstration of how political action committees work. Many of the attack ads you saw on TV were paid for by PACs, not by campaigns. The PACs have much more freedom than do the official campaign organizations, provided they keep an arms-length distance from the campaigns. So it's easy for a PAC to run an ad denigrating another candidate; the law almost seems to encourage that, since pro-candidate ads might call into question whether a PAC is keeping its proper distance from that candidate's campaign organization.
The result is that the airwaves are filled with ads slamming this candidate or that one. Often, regardless of party affiliation, the criticisms are ridiculous and trumped-up, taking things out of context and exaggerating everything for effect. Some are outright lies -- and when one lie doesn't stick, the opposition moves on to another. No matter who is elected, there's a sizeable portion of the electorate who believes that person to be a criminal, a fraud, or worse.
Some pundits, programs and news outlets, on either end of the spectrum, build their business on fueling viewer outrage (and presenting themselves as the only reliable source for information about these terrible goings-on). That's a terrible atmosphere for good journalism.
The result of this has been that people whom I think of, in real life, as being reasonable and fair-minded turned into screechy, hysterical, alarmist goons on Facebook and Twitter over the past few weeks.
Let's take a look at reality. There are, without a doubt, self-serving, power-hungry people in any political party, including both of America's two major parties. But there are also good, decent people in either party who want what's best for this country.
The differences between the parties aren't between hard-working patriots and welfare-addicted slackers (as the Republicans would have you believe) or between greedy corporate overlords and their hard-working but helpless victims (as the Democrats would have you believe). The issues are a lot more complex than either side would have you believe. Not every person getting government assistance is a slacker; not every person getting government assistance is a noble victim of circumstance. Not every government program is good; not every government program is bad.
The trouble is, taking a more nuanced view of political issues requires thought, not knee-jerk reaction.
Quite frankly, neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama is as extremist as their enemies made them out to be. And whomever was elected would have had to work with a divided Congress -- a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. The people who forecast doom if one or the other were elected just aren't thinking things through.
It's good to be passionate, as I said. But this country was also built on compromise. Our founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were forged by men with sharply-differing political views. Some wanted the new nation to have a strong central government; others wanted the states to be the primary government and the national government to be a loose coordination. The details had to be worked out in the blood, sweat and tears of debate, discussion and compromise. That requires some measure of civil behavior, and respect for those whose views differ from your own. I fear we are losing both that civil behavior and respect, and becoming a nation of conspiracy theorists screaming at each other.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.