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Jay Evensen: Our polarized political mess — can America's rational middle be awakened?

I’m not so sure the gentility we think we remember ever existed as more than a thin crust atop a smoldering undercurrent of scrawled paint and insults fed by political extremes. But the political establishment once held the extremes in check.
I’m not so sure the gentility we think we remember ever existed as more than a thin crust atop a smoldering undercurrent of scrawled paint and insults fed by political extremes. But the political establishment once held the extremes in check.
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I recently came across a photo, dated 1938, of a car covered in political graffiti parked along a city street in San Francisco.

On its driver-side door was painted, “Yes Columbus did discover America! We have discovered the international bankers have taken it away from us saps.” One front fender was painted with, “Lies are falling thick and fast.”

There were other scribbles. The car was parked in front of a jewelry store whose entrance had an awning similarly adorned. “Roosevelt,” it said in part, “said he would drive money changers out of the temple. Nov. 7 is their doom.”

Nov. 7 was Election Day. The jeweler supported a ballot initiative that would have granted $30 a week in a publicly funded pension to everyone over 50, a reaction to the many elderly in California made destitute by the Depression. (That $30 equals $515.46 today.)

A Harvard study of this initiative campaign (it failed, barely), quotes historians Winston and Marian Moore, who described it as leading to “almost a verbal civil war.” Few people could discuss the matter rationally. “Everyone took sides and every street corner was a battlefront.”

In other words, it was a lot like today’s political climate, except that it revolved around one issue. It had a beginning and an end. In today’s political climate, as Institute for America Values founder David Blankenhorn recently told the Deseret News, “You sign up to be on one team or the other, and each team has its own positions on every single issue.”

We may not have slogans crudely scrawled in paint all over our cars, but many Americans have them scrawled on their hearts and minds.

The photo, which I found on the website shorpy.com, is instructive. Political passion is hardly a new thing in this country. Neither is incivility nor the demonization of political opponents. In the election of 1912, after all, former President Theodore Roosevelt called then-President William Howard Taft a “fathead” who had “the brains of a guinea pig.”

But there was no social media in those days. There were no radio and television outlets or websites pandering exclusively to people who chose one side or the other. Parties had control over their platforms and candidates, which tempered extremes and aimed for mainstream acceptance.

I am not the first person to note that the American political system is rapidly devolving into an argument against democracy. I certainly would not be the first to call for a return to gentler times. It’s just that I’m not so sure the gentility we think we remember ever existed as more than a thin crust atop a smoldering undercurrent of scrawled paint and insults fed by political extremes.

Established politics used to be able to hold all of that together, taming it in the name of the type of order and civility necessary for progress.

A lot of organizations today are trying to motivate the rational middle to regain control. These include groups with names like The Village Square, Living Room Conversations or The Coffee Party. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. heads an organization called “No Labels,” which is trying to end Washington’s political dysfunction.

Each group has noble aims. Years ago, as an adjunct college instructor, I used to assign my students to write an impassioned editorial that argued the opposite side of an issue they felt strongly about. Some students ended up changing their positions, but nearly all of them at least gained a greater appreciation for people and opinions they previously had dismissed. I often wished the entire nation could join in this exercise.

But as I examine the lofty goals of these groups, I keep thinking of an old joke. How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

Democracy can be used to pander to the worst angels of our nature. Opportunists can gain a lot by appealing to fears. Changing this will take leadership and the arousal of many decent people who normally don’t get involved — the types who would find it unseemly to paint their cars as a political statement.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.