Why Partisan Politics is Dumb

Last year I had a booth at a Lihue craft fair. It was just before the holidays and the little veteran's hall was full of beaded earrings, hand-made pet outfits, quilted aloha-print purses, sand-based accessories and hula angels made out of coconut husks. Every 4'5" grandma on the island turned out to get ideas for what to make for her grandkids. And apparently it caught somebody's eye as a prime spot for shakin' hands and kissin' babies.

We were visited by a throng of polished people in starched aloha shirts and dewy leis, handing out glossy brochures. First a polite and carefully coiffed Councilwoman Yukimura shook our hands and said hello. I hoped she was going to buy a T-shirt. I didn't realize she was politicking until she handed me a "Vote Yukimura!" pamphlet.  I lamely gave her my card anyway. Then I noticed a particularly striking couple-- Adam and Eve, Mr. and Mrs. Jesus-- bronze skin, in elegant cream-colored Filipino folk costumes, both a head taller than the rest of the room. Duke Aiona (R) and his wife. They flowed through the room, brushing fingertips with the tiny grandmothers, ducking under offered leis, trailed by a flustered assistant and a swat team of top supporters and People of Import.

He was the favorite for the State Governorship here on Kauai-- Hawaiian descent, Christian family man, he struck a good (slack open G) chord. His supporters lined the road with signs and enthusiastically stared down passing cars.

When he lost to Abercrombie (D), a friend was beside herself. She said, "I can't believe our new governor is a TROLL!"

I have been remembering that moment-- her heat and fear and anger that the "Wrong" team had won. I didn't (and, I hate to admit, still don't) know enough about Abercrombie to counter or confirm the "troll" accusation. But I recognize that reaction. I was in Berkeley when George W. Bush was re-elected. It was a dark, dark time. There was rending of sackcloth, plentiful ashes, wailing, gnashing of teeth.

I watched some funny/angry partisan videos last night but started feeling a bit uneasy. Like the jerk saying bad words to the nerdy kid to make him put his fingers in his ears (sorry Fred, Miss. Shuey's class, 7th grade). The rhetoric of the blue vs. the red, the democrats vs. the republicans, liberals vs. conservatives-- it's all very exciting. Conspiracy theories about Big Evil Government or Big Evil Corporations-- that's compelling copy. And defining ourselves as different from the other team-- setting up all their dumb ideas as a foil to all our good ideas-- is classic strawmanning: a great rhetorical trick to look right. And I'm sure all that partisan mudslinging makes a lot of money for both sides. But the partisan message isn't benign. We don't watch a clip of Fox news and think "gosh, there are a lot of ways to approach these problems, depending on your priorities and philosophies!" The message is, this is a battle of opposites, of fundamental differences, of a line drawn in the sand, good and evil. Luke vs. Darth, Frodo vs. Sauron. We, ourselves are always Frodo-- the earnest hard-working Hobbit, about to be crushed by the monolith of Mordor.

The rhetoric of difference destroys trust. If I vote democrat and the republican wins, I can't trust a word out of the winner-- now my elected official's--mouth. After all, we're on different teams, right? Wrong. While that makes for exciting neck-and-neck news coverage, heated debates, and hilarious comedy, it also leads to violence and bigotry. It leads to blind faith in a partisan dogma rather than a general faith in humanity. A politics defined by fundamental differences leads to xenophobia.

I went to BYU and UC Berkeley, I grew up in blue Maryland and red Utah, I was raised in a politically conservative religion but in a politically liberal family. The boundaries between parties and platforms have always seemed liquid and ephemeral to me-- and I understand how culture can get confused with politics, and how politics can get confused with Truth.

It would be boring but much more productive if we brought a little faith into politics. Not, "Heehaw, Jesus take the wheel!" faith, but faith in hokey unsexy things like political process, checks and balances, rule of law, and the constitution. I mean faith that our government, not our party, is really pretty impressive. I go to the post office, put a stamp on my letter, and IT GETS THERE. That's really amazing! I turn on my tap, there is CLEAN POTABLE WATER almost all of the time! Incredible! We should believe-- or at least desire to believe-- that our country works, that it CAN work, that we don't need to disengage and stockpile weapons for the coming apocalypse, even if the current party's philosophy is not totally our own.

It may be ungainly, it may galumph along rather than hum, but believing that our country is basically good and capable can only help us become better. Slicing ourselves in half and watching the bleed-out might be more interesting, but I would prefer politics to be much less interesting and much more effective.

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