We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that everyone votes out of fear.
Even landslide victories are votes of rejection rather than votes of affirmation. It wasn’t that the electorate loved Richard Nixon so much in 1972; they just couldn’t stand George McGovern. Walter Mondale also received a near-universal thumbs down in his bruising defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan a dozen years later.
We all fear what the other political side will do once entrusted with Presidential power. Remember the protests that greeted George W. Bush’s inauguration in January 2001? Those Democrats feared a return to 1980s-style social and economic conservatism, which they irrationally considered awful.
I remember watching a PBS Frontline profile of Rush Limbaugh several years ago; at one point, there was a shot of Limbaugh and other conservatives looking on in absolute dejection as the media confirmed George H. W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. That depression was also rooted in fear–fear that Clinton would bring to the White House the hard-left values of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Partisan mistrust is now at the highest level it has been in the last forty years. Everyone feels that their values are under assault–and everyone wants to defend their values by any means necessary.
Democrats fear talk radio; since the late 1980s, conservatives have used the medium as an influential means of advancing the Right’s philosophy. Republicans fear the progressive blogosphere: left-wing websites backed by financiers such as George Soros are leading the charge to force conservative pundits and television hosts off the public airwaves.
We always fear that it will be the end of the world if the other side wins the Presidential race. I’ll never forget the horrified faces I saw around Faneuil Hall in Boston in the hour preceding John Kerry’s concession speech on November 3, 2004. Bush-hating Democrats were sobbing uncontrollably, eyes red as traffic lights. Bostonians who were convinced of Bush’s ineptitude were stunned, shocked, gored by grief. They couldn’t believe the heartland had rejected Kerry.
I felt a similar sense of shock on November 8, 2006, when it was confirmed that the Democrats had recaptured the House and Senate. I wasn’t as depressed as the pro-Kerry crowd at Faneuil Hall, but I couldn’t believe that the electorate decided to return Congressional power to the Democrats just days after Kerry insulted American troops serving in Iraq. I feared that the election would begin the process of the United States leaving Iraq in ignoble defeat.
In truth, most of our fears never come to fruition. The country has a unique ability to survive political turmoil. While conservatives had no use for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both men were ultimately unable to destroy the greatness of this country. Liberals hated Reagan and Bush, but honest progressives must admit that neither man damaged the country irreparably.
We’re always afraid that the winner of the next election will bring about Armageddon if he doesn’t belong to our party. Yet the country always managed to endure. The US has survived the Civil War, Jim Crow, Watergate and 9/11. We’re strong enough to survive a President we don’t like.
The Right went after Clinton aggressively in the 1990s; the Left went after Bush even more aggressively in the 2000s. The winner of the ’08 election will be hounded at every turn by the opposition party as well. Yet the fiercest partisan must acknowledge that a President is merely an individual, and cannot single-handedly injure the country beyond repair.
However, it’s possible for average citizens to injure the country beyond repair–especially when those citizens react to political changes out of ignorance or prejudice, or when they seek to silence those who come to different political conclusions than their own. Those who join together in the name of silencing free speech or intentionally corrupting political discourse have more collective power than even the President.
This is a real fear, not the phony fear of a President from an opposing party “destroying America as we know it.” No matter who wins the next election, the country will find a way to survive. However, when we allow extreme partisans to control the contours of speech, we make America weaker, poorer, less free, less healthy.
When the right to express one’s views is threatened by extreme partisans, democracy itself is jeopardized. Like terrorism itself, we must remain ever vigilant against this threat.