Perhaps the most challenging choice we face as a nation in November, or whenever, will be to decide what kind of a country we want to be - what will define us as a people. Politicians may recalibrate their positions about "core" values and pose alternative views about everything from health care to defense to the environment. But in the end when partisan gibberish is swept away, the expressed values that remain will serve as a definitive barometer of our better selves and our future conduct.
Sadly as Bill Moyers has said, "our democracy has gone off the rails." Many of the virtuous goals to which our founders ascribed have deteriorated into waves of influence-peddling and mind-numbing partisanship. Angry rhetoric has taken the place of meaningful discourse so that it makes perfect sense that the Republican base sidesteps issues and decides instead that making Obama "a one-term president" is the ultimate goal and however that end may be achieved is the way to proceed. This objective is often fleshed out by denying or ignoring the obvious fault lines in our political configuration.
No mainstream candidate admits to the racist implications of what has come to be known as "the southern strategy." In fact this framework is referenced without shame or regret though it has little to do with geographical placement and everything to do with parochial politics. It isn't just that nothing of importance is accomplished and that our goals have become limited and narrow, but rather that we are losing a sense of who we are and why we matter. We‘re not just standing still - we are retreating - despite the protestations of those who keep insisting we are "exceptional" no matter how far we stray from our higher purpose.
Newt Gingrich turns back the clock when he rails at Occupy demonstrators as if they were the raggedy remnants of Woodstock. Gingrich and others were never able to relate to those who gathered in upstate New York in the sixties - not their issues, or their anti-war message. Today's Occupy protestors are nothing like the population that lingered in the fields at Woodstock. And, although detractors like Gingrich would like to apply the same language they used back then - take a bath, get a job and so on - that line of attack is totally misplaced and irrelevant. Many of the demonstrators today are out of work with little hope of finding employment any time soon, nor are they un-bathed, poorly spoken or without ambition. But they exemplify the economic hurdles today's workers face in a social framework that favors the already rich and scorns everyone else.
In an unpleasant reminder of the just-past administration's "let-them-eat-cake" approach, a George Bush address to supporters referred to them as the "haves and the have mores." Some call them the elites he said, but "I call them my base." The crowd was greatly amused, but considering the mess the economy is in Bush and his base have not served the country well. Politicians in thrall to special interests continue to attack entitlements and government spending, but balk when their tax advantages are threatened.
What's more there's a concerted effort on the right to ignore the pervasive effect of racism in concert with the nation's lopsided financial configuration. Critics of the president decry what they call his racist approach to events like the killing of Trayvon Martin as if the racial implications of the incident weren't obvious to any reasonable observer. Of course the death of any young person regardless of color or ethnic background is sad and incredibly painful for the family involved. But the fact is that young people of color face a different set of circumstances than whites and the willingness to ignore that fact and indeed to offer mitigating explanations to excuse the horrific nature of racially motivated crimes is a willfully blind escape route for those who refuse to see or accept complicity in what is a national disgrace.
When our leaders fail to take a moral stand and ignore reality they fail the country and set a bad example for our youth. They forfeit the right to speak of values when they use low-minded racial preferences for political advantage and call into question the very nature of our democratic principles.