by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
More than fifty years ago, the redheaded, gap-toothed cartoon character Alfred E. Neuman was introduced to the public by MAD magazine asking the question, “What, Me Worry?” I have been thinking a lot lately about that simple question and, looking back at the last fifty years and how much has changed in American politics and society, I have to sadly answer “yes, me worry.”
I am worried that we no longer seem to see those with different views as good people with different perspectives and positions, but as “the enemy” determined to bring harm to America. According to a 2019 survey, eight in ten Republicans think the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists and a similar proportion of Democrats think the Republican party has been co-opted by racists. The other side is not just wrong, but evil. And, unfortunately, many political leaders seem more than willing to feed the flame. Gone, it seems, are the days when a candidate (John McCain) was willing to correct a supporter who said “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” by responding, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.” Most candidates today would let the false characterization stand and, unfortunately, even encourage it. That worries me.
I am worried that people, both voters and many elected officials, seem more interested in making decisions based on passion and politics than facts and rationality. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” In today’s world, everyone seems to think they are entitled to their own “facts,” accurate or not. It is difficult if not impossible to have a constructive debate about public policy if there is no agreement about the nature, source or solution to the problem. And, unfortunately, many of our leaders seem as willing to base their positions on information whose accuracy is questionable at best and demonstrably false at worst. That worries me.
I am worried that the general public is losing faith in our democracy and its electoral system. Following the 2016 elections, Democrats’ faith in the electoral system was shaken by unproven charges of international interference, and four years later the faith of many on the other side was undermined by unfounded charges of a rigged election. A survey conducted earlier this year found that just over six in ten Americans felt that election results were conducted fairly and accurately. That means four in ten Americans do not believe that our elections are fair and accurate. That worries me.
I am worried that many of our elected leaders seem increasingly willing to sacrifice sound public policy that would benefit their constituents simply to embarrass the other party or the executive. Good ideas have no chance of becoming law simply because they are introduced by a member of the minority party or proposed by the governor of the other party. I understand that in the short term, this might be good politics and satisfy a partisan base that is more interested in electing people who fight than those who compromise. However, governments that do not solve the problems faced by the voters will eventually lose the confidence and support of those voters. That worries me.
I am worried that politics is becoming increasingly dangerous. I realize that politics has always been a contact sport, but this feels different. Some voters feel intimidated when they show up to the polls. Poll workers and volunteer election officials are threatened for simply doing their civic duty. Elected campaign administrators are threatened and harassed by voters and elected officials because they will not bend to the will of losing candidates who repeatedly and falsely claim rigged elections. Elected officials find themselves under verbal and sometimes physical assault simply for doing what they believe is right or voting a particular way. At some point, if this continues, good and noble people will be increasingly less likely to vote, administer elections, or even run for office. That worries me.
Finally, I am worried that some elected officials seem to be unwilling to stand up for the truth or stand up to those who distort it or deny it. I am reminded of the words from “All the King’s Men” describing the actions of the lead character Willie Stark (based on Louisiana Governor Huey Long), “Willie knew if you hollered long enough, hard enough, and loud enough, people begin to believe you.” Volume is substituted for truth by some, and far too many people who know better lend consent by their silence. That worries me.
So, yes, me worry. However, “me” has not lost hope. Despite all of these concerns, I know many of these leaders and I know there are many good people out there. I once heard renowned historian David McCullough say that America did not become a great nation by providence, but because ordinary people were willing to do extraordinary things. It is time for America’s leaders to do extraordinary things. Stand up for the truth. Stand up to those who spread false information. Put aside partisan differences for the good of the people you represent and the state and nation you cherish. Temper passion with reason. Do your part to tone down the temperature and make debates about policies, not personalities. It is time for true leaders to do extraordinary things. I know you can do it and for the sake of our almost 250-year-old democracy, you must.