As I recently sang our national anthem, I realized that the last words of the first verse are a way of saying that we hope our nation will continue and prosper: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free . . .?” The well-being of our country is important to all of us, and so now and then we need to ask ourselves how we’re doing—are we keeping it healthy and strong?
Part of the advice George Washington gave the nation in his farewell address was to warn us, “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” He felt that if we first consider ourselves members of one political party or another rather than united Americans, we will suffer “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension.”
And as loyalty to either Republicans or Democrats has taken over both in our nation’s capital and throughout our states and individual communities, we can see that what he warned us about has actually happened. Party politics, Washington said, “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Agitation, jealousy, lies, animosity and so on have become the norm in today’s politics.
How did this happen? One reason is that we have begun to identify more strongly with our political parties than with our religion, race, gender, or ethnicity, according to a recent Stanford study. I have heard, in fact, that loyalty to party is replacing the religious faith of a majority of Americans.
And political parties are not guided by moral teachings of treating others as we would like to be treated and being kind to strangers. According to this study, “the rhetoric and behavior of party leaders suggests to voters that it is perfectly acceptable to treat opponents with disdain.” They appeal to the worst that is in us rather than the highest and best.
What happens when we repeatedly, in television “news” programs and from our own leaders, hear those of the other party called “idiot,” “moron,” liar,” “crazy,” “the enemy, or “vicious, evil and very corrupt” (all words I have actually heard some national political figure call another)? We begin to believe the characterizations and feel that we have no need to treat such people with basic dignity and respect. They become lesser human beings and eventually our enemies, not other Americans with some bad but also some good ideas for solving the problems our country faces. “We” are good; “they” are possibly stupid and certainly misguided.
Why does that matter? What will it do to our country if this trend continues and builds? We can already see the results in the dysfunction of Congress. Rather than looking at a problem, say immigration, on which no legislation has been passed since 1986, and working together to fix our broken system, nothing gets done. Any bill proposed by the other party is considered worthless, and whole blocs of party-affiliated legislators join in opposing it. And yet the congressional system set up by the Constitution requires compromise or it can’t succeed.
We need to stop this trend and re-assess our own behaviors before the country devolves into regional tribal groups who consider violence against their neighbors as the way to act to get what they want. But it is not easy, once one is on the hate-train, to get off. I think most of us could do better; I have had to admit that I am part of the problem. Have I ever doubted the faith and basic morality of those who support a leader I oppose? Yes. Do I study the political platforms and legislation proposed by the other side to learn their merits? Hardly ever. Rather than keeping silent, do I ask friends about the issues that are important to them and listen to their concerns?
Nope. Do I join with those of the other party to come up with a way forward on a difficult problem? I am beginning to try. Do I support candidates for office whose record shows that they work across the aisle to solve problems? Yes, actually, on this one, I am doing the right thing. Do I call out state or national leaders of my own party when they denigrate a member of the other party? Not yet, but I will. For the sake of our country, state, and our beloved home community, I am going to change.
—Susan Howe of Ephraim is professor emeritus of English at BYU. She recently served as associate editor of a 288-page issue of BYU Studies Quarterly. The volume is titled “The Restored Gospel and Good Government.”