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Can we all just get along?

The Top Story by Chris Graham


The Shenandoah Valley is usually pretty tame as far as its politics goes – but even the solid Republican Mountain Valley has seen its share of contentiousness this political season.

To wit …

– One of the highlights of the Augusta County Fair this summer was an episode in which a Democratic Party volunteer offered a commentary to the mother of a fallen United States Marine that led to a verbal confrontation between Democrats and Republicans working the fair that had to be broken up by the county sheriff.

– Republican Sen. George Allen canceled on very short notice a scheduled August stop in downtown Staunton after costumed protestors gathered in the central shopping district to raise issue with his use of a racial slur to describe a campaign volunteer of Democratic Party opponent Jim Webb at an event in Southwest Virginia earlier in the month.

– That same day, Allen was confronted at another event in Staunton by a liberal blogger who asked the senator if he had “ever used the word ‘nigger.’ ”

– In a related happening, the blogger from the second Staunton incident, Mike Stark, a 38-year-old University of Virginia law student, was back in the news last week – after a question about Allen’s first marriage landed him on the floor of a Charlottesville hotel in the arms of a former Albemarle County GOP official who joined two other Allen supporters in physically impeding Stark from gaining access to the senator.

If this is the way things are in red state Virginia, it’s no surprise to hear that the rest of the country is clawing at itself to the point that we have to seriously begin to ask ourselves the question, Can America ever be one again?“It’s always difficult to make that kind of judgment around election time – because the rhetoric of campaigns, particularly within a few weeks of the election itself, is usually such that it generates polarizing feelings, emotions and attitudes,” University of Virginia economist David Shreve said.

“Sometimes there’s still a lot of flames burning after elections – and the embers don’t die out quite that readily. And that makes it extremely difficult for those who wish to try to build a consensus,” Shreve told The Augusta Free Press.

“You know during a political campaign that people are going to throw dirt back and forth. I guess it’s inevitable,” said Lee Godfrey, a Staunton Democrat who has been active on the front lines of the Allen-Webb campaign.

“I don’t know why that’s true – but it seems to be that way. But really what we need to know is, if you’re going to vote for somebody, where do they stand on the issues?” Godfrey said. “I think both sides are guilty of not making that clear – where they stand on a particular issue. They seem to get desperate, start throwing things at each other, name-calling and all that kind of stuff. We’ll never solve anything if we don’t start talking about what’s really important – and that’s the issues, and solutions.

“That’s what we want to hear about. I don’t want to hear about the book. I don’t want to hear about Macaca. All this other stuff is just distracting,” Godfrey told the AFP.

Virginia Tech political-science professor Bob Denton is more of a realist when it comes to the discussion of this issue.

“I’ve got to tell you – I don’t want to be too much of a pessimist, but ever since the 2000 presidential campaign, I’ve never seen such polarization in my life,” Denton said.

“We’ve gone through six years now of highly intense politics – the names that elected officials call each other, calling the president a liar, just tossing around these kinds of names left and right. The decibel level is as high in this off year as it ever has been. And special-interest groups are playing a role now – with some of the corporate and advocacy advertising that we’re seeing. I think a lot of citizens sit down and look up at the sky, and they see these rockets going above them – it’s kind of like an air war going on up there above them. It’s all or none, left or right. I find it troubling – and I do not see it abating. It just seems that with each cycle, it is intensifying,” Denton said.

“After 2000, people talked about the red versus the blue – we were a 50-50 nation. And while that may be a little bit of an exaggeration, when we talk about issues – whether it’s stem-cell research, gay marriage, taxes, Iraq – there seems to be such a polarization.

“I really am concerned about this age that we’re in – this age of reactivity. And it’s hard to see the middle ground,” Denton told the AFP.“You’re seeing a pretty strong partisan breakdown because the stakes are just about as high as they get – control of both houses of Congress. I think because of that you’ve got that added feel of it almost being sort of like a zero-sum game – like the Cold War,” University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Matt Smyth said.
“There’s always negative campaigning – there’s always a lot of division when it’s close. But this year, you’ve got not only the negative campaigning, but the unsavory aspects of campaigning that have come up this election season – the Mark Foley scandal, the personal attacks in the Virginia Senate race here. Those are the things that make it tougher to come back together and govern,” Smyth told the AFP.

“I don’t see it becoming less contentious,” said Bridgewater College political-science professor David McQuilkin.

“It’s going to be as contentious as it’s ever been, if not more so. I just don’t see the two parties kissing and making up – particularly when each of them sees the other as the enemy, as is oftentimes expressed, and given their unwillingness to work with each other, because they are the enemy, and they oftentimes vocalize it, and the fact that they just can’t seem to bring themselves to accept anything that the other party represents and stands for as being legitimate,” McQuilkin said.

“Look at what the president has been saying in recent weeks – vote for Republicans, because you lose when you vote for the Democrats. When you come out with that kind of rhetoric in the latter stages of an election cycle, and you come out that vigorously and that pronounced, there’s not going to be any real sense of willingness to be less partisan or to make up and work together,” McQuilkin told the AFP.

That willingness, some observers would argue, has been on the wane for some time now. Denton traces it to the 1988 presidential election in which Lee Atwater, George H.W. Bush’s Karl Rove, Willie Hortoned and card-carrying-ACLUed Michael Dukakis into political oblivion. Chris Saxman, a Staunton Republican who represents a portion of Western Virginia in the Virginia House of Delegates, thinks it goes back further than that.

“I think it’s more a function of the generations,” Saxman said. “The boomers were very polarized – and they’re now leading the nation. I think it’s a function of their idealism versus pragmatism – which is what my generation is more focused on.

“It’s going to be a time before we repair this breach. Hopefully it won’t take a national catastrophe to do it,” Saxman told the AFP.

Creigh Deeds, a Bath County Democrat who was within a dog’s whisker of being elected Virginia attorney general in one of the closest elections in Old Dominion history, dates the change in tone of contemporary politics to the election of Ronald Reagan – George H.W. Bush’s predecessor and George W. Bush’s political role model – to the White House in 1980.

“That was when we started seeing elections that began to really divide the American people. To their credit, the American people are resilient. At our core, we’re still Americans – we’re not Democrats and Republicans so much as we are Americans,” Deeds said.

“That’s the disappointing point to me – that so many people who are elected now are in the mindset that they’re elected only as one or the other. You might be elected as a Democrat or as a Republican, but at the end of the day, you represent all of the people. And as long as we don’t lose sight of that fact, we’re going to be all right,” Deeds said.

“When you call people bad names and go through the bad stuff of elections, it’s hard to recover sometimes from that. But you’ve got to move past it. You’ve got to move on. You’ve got to recognize at the end that we’re Americans,” Deeds told the AFP.

But being Americans, we have access to news 24-7-365 – on over-the-air and cable television, in newspapers and magazines, and on the Internet.

And the way those mediums are evolving, they themselves can be a source for contention.

“The media tends to report what they want to support,” Steve Kijak, an Augusta County Republican and conservative blogger, told the AFP.

“I hate to beat up on you guys, but when you’re in a 24-7 news environment, you’ve got to fill it with something,” Denton said.

“And that demand for content kind of invites comment, reaction, further reaction, all the talking heads – the Chris Matthewses of the world. And of course here I am talking to you. But you see what I’m getting at. Part of it is this technology and 24-7 environment is also playing a role to personalizing and keeping some of the arguments alive on a day-in and day-out basis,” Denton said.

The growth in influence of the media has made what had been for many years an exclusively Washington phenomenon – this political conflict that has us at each others’ throats right now – into something that has seeped down to the bare local level.

“At the federal level, we’ve seen in congressional elections and presidential elections this all is fair in politics kind of mentality – and it’s been somewhat of a perpetual campaign, in that people who are elected to office, it seems, sometimes forget that there’s a duty to serve once you’re elected to all the constituents in your area, not just those that are partisan and put you there. It’s something that I’ve been confronted with – I was in my last election – because some of those who are key players at the federal level in Washington who have become power brokers seem determined to spread that influence into state elections, and they have been reasonably successful with that,” said Emmett Hanger, a Mount Solon Republican who represents a swath of Western Virginia and Central Virginia in the Virginia Senate.

“These guys are pretty vicious, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about public policy that’s good for the country or good for a particular state, in my opinion,” Hanger said. “The essence of it is, whatever it is that you’re advocating for, it’s for clutching power, it’s for gaining power at whatever cost. And power is a goal in and of itself, rather than what it should be, in an ideal situation, that elective office is a platform to perform good – to serve your area, to institute good policy that impacts on the quality of life.

“Well, too often, I believe now, it’s more of a power fight in that it’s an end in itself – in other words, it’s not to be congressman so that you can impact the country for good, it’s to be a congressman so you can have power and prestige. And that’s unfortunate,” Hanger told the AFP.

The hard reality here is that once this becomes the way that politics are waged – once strategies aimed at building and exploiting divisiveness becomes the accepted norm – there is really no way to get the toothpaste back into the tube.

“As long as that type of campaigning works, whether it be negative or just spinning facts into things that are not very accurate, if it works, people will continue to do it, I suppose,” Hanger said.

“When someone hammers on you, then when you do come back, it appears that you are the one that’s going negative – you talk about what they said about you in some way. So it has to be handled carefully. It is unfortunate – but it’s a part of modern politics. Which unfortunately, I think, keeps a lot of very competent people that would be good for the process from coming out. And what you find instead is people who love that part of it getting involved sometimes who probably shouldn’t,” Hanger said.

“You couldn’t pay me to run for anything – not that I would get elected dogcatcher,” Denton said. “But you’re going to dig up the time I was in the principal’s office at 16 years old? Please. I lived through that once. I don’t need to live through it again – and in public.

“If I was one of these candidates, and I survived, and I would go back to the next legislative session, I don’t know how I could shake some of these people’s hands,” Denton said. “How do you say, Oh, it’s just politics? If you say it’s just politics, you’re saying that’s just the way it has to be played. And I’m not sure that I want to grant that.”

Saxman, like Hanger, admits that the divisiveness issue has been something that has entered into his personal thinking.

“The nature of what we do in Richmond when we’re there serving is very nonpartisan and bipartisan. And frankly, I was very pleased to see that. I wasn’t expecting that,” Saxman said.

“We all do get along. I count people on the other side of the aisle as my friends – legitimate friends. I play golf with some of these people, we spend time together socially. When we have losses in our families, we write each other notes from the heart. I’ve grown quite fond of some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I disagree with them on the issues, and they disagree with me, and that’s just the way it rolls,” Saxman said.

“The closer you get to D.C., the more partisan it gets – because that’s just the way D.C. is. I often point out to people when I’m talking about Richmond how different it is from D.C. politics. We actually have to get things done. We actually have to go back and prove ourselves. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that in Virginia,” Saxman said.

“People ask me, Would you ever consider running for Congress? And I look at it, and I say, I don’t know if it’s actually not a foregone conclusion that it’s going to be that way for several more decades. I look at how remarkably unified we were after 9/11 – they all stood together and held hands and prayed and wept and sang hymns – and I look at it today and say, What happened? Is it all about political power? Because while some of the criticisms of the president and the administration are valid, it’s gotten to the point of satire. And I don’t get that,” Saxman said.

Our original question in this essay was – Can America ever be one again? A followup might be structured along the lines of – Can we all just get along?“I don’t think it’s going to go away until we have another generation of leadership in there that is going to look to reach across and do some meaningful things in politics and put some of these things aside,” Saxman said.

“Because it is getting in the way. It’s not just about making deals and compromising. A lot of these things, frankly, are too important to get lost in perfection. It’s not about what you want – it’s what you can get. And sometimes you’ve just got to go home with something good instead of trying to go home with something perfect,” Saxman said.

“My wife makes phenomenal chocolate-chip cookies, and we’ve gotten pretty good in our family determining which ones are really good and which ones are phenomenal. But guess what – they all get eaten. In the final analysis, no one says no,” Saxman said.

“It’s difficult to go home sometimes and say, We didn’t get everything, but we got what we thought was going in the right direction. You might take some wrong turns in life, but if you’re headed in the right direction eventually, you’ll get there.

“I think people lose sight of that sometimes. And it’s blinding our progress. Because a house divided can’t stand,” Saxman said.

“We’ll have to go to a period of time where we refocus on what it is we want government to be about and the political process itself,” Hanger said.

“I think we’ve had some of those dips in the past – but now, quite frankly, I guess it’s spurred on by the fact that in the past it might be once a week where there would be focus on it, but now, it’s constant. We have 24-hour around-the-clock news coverage that can put it in front of us all the time. We have popular shows on radio that constantly put things out there with their particular spin. And now we find that where it used to be more subtle, now it’s very overt and aggressive in terms of which side particular broadcasters are on,” Hanger said.

“Do we have to do it? Absolutely, yes,” Godfrey said. “What I like to tell people, and I really believe this – you know, they’re always trying to pigeonhole you, you’re either Republican, or you’re Democrat. And often, you lean one way or the other, that’s true. But what we all are are Americans. We all love this country and want what’s best for it – and to do that, just like in a family unit, you have to work as a community. You have to compromise, and you have to talk to each other.

“So I don’t think we have any choice – because we have a lot of problems to deal with, and we sure better eat some humble pie, and everybody had better get ready to hunker down and come up with some solutions,” Godfrey said.

“When you look at this Allen-Webb race right now, it’s pretty much a dead heat – and what does that tell you? It tells you that there really isn’t a majority one way or the other. It means that it’s time to recognize what the other side sees and wants – and come to some kind of compromise, some kind of middle ground,” Godfrey said.

“What was the latest poll – 47-47? I want Allen to remember that 47 percent of the people in this state support what Webb says. It’s important to remember that. At the same time, if Webb wins, it’s important for him to remember that 47 percent of the state support what Allen says,” Godfrey said.

While Saxman and Godfrey and others seem to be holding out hope for a brighter tomorrow, McQuilkin, for one, is of the mindset that we may be too far gone to ever be able to return to a point where we all can get along.

“It’s possible – but many things will have to change,” McQuilkin said. “We can’t continue to promote attack politics. We can’t continue to use wedge issues to separate out small groups of people against other groups of people. We can’t run policies that essentially pit one group of citizenry against another for resources – whatever those resources may be. We can’t continue to besmirch and ridicule and even to suggest illegitimacy on the part of the other group because we don’t agree with them.

“As long as you have that, you’re not going to change. Once we can get past that, then there’s a possibility that we can come back to civility and bipartisanship – true bipartisanship – in the political process. But right now, I don’t see it in the cards,” McQuilkin said.

“Too much is going to have to change. We’ve created now too divisive a circumstance in political activity – and those kinds of things are very, very difficult to overcome,” McQuilkin said.

At least for the foreseeable future, Smyth is there with McQuilkin.

“It’s one thing when you bash somebody’s immigration policy or their views on Social Security reform. Those are policy-related, and everybody expects to have those types of differences and occasionally speak strongly about them. But when you’ve got personal characteristics and personal qualities that are talked about, then instead of disagreeing with someone, you end up disliking them – which are two very different things,” Smyth said.

“American politics had gotten to the point where sometimes that line is blurred for some voters. In that sense, it’s going to make it a little bit difficult on the national level. The results of the election – whether Democrats take control of one house or both houses, or the Republicans manage to hang on – nobody’s majority is going to be that strong, strong enough to survive a filibuster or strong enough to just push through legislation,” Smyth said.

“In that sense, I think you’re going to see some gridlock, I think you’re going to see a lot more rhetoric than you’re going to see actual results,” Smyth said.

Denton, having trouble overcoming his nagging pessimism, fears for the long-term future of America.

“I don’t want to get too far out there – but that with the balkanization of America, in another 50 years, will we look like Eastern Europe?” Denton said.

“I mean, you look at America, both geographically and philosophically or ideologically, the Northeast, in its beliefs, attitudes, values and issues, is so different from the South, the Midwest and of course that Left Coast out there. I can see us becoming the Republics of America,” Denton said.

“I really wonder with the globalization, the shrinkage and the intensity of differences regionally, the reds and the blues, if we as Americans are somehow losing the notion of what it means to be an American. I would hate to see us go that route – but we may already be heading in that direction,” Denton said.


(Published 11-06-06)




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