goin' back to gettysburg
I had some time to kill on a quiet Saturday morning in Des Moines, so I went for a wander in our state capitol building. I practically had the place to myself. The security guys were bored and the woman at the info booth kept smiling at me in a challenging way, “Ask me anything. Go ahead. Make my day”. It was pleasant to be able to just follow my eyes and linger at the various plaques, displays and artifacts. There’s the case of old civil war flags, and our state motto, “our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”. There’s the big model of the USS Iowa, with its missile systems and glorious 16-inch guns … a badass boat that makes me want to put on a stars-n-stripes T-shirt, sing the anthem, and high-five everyone. And there’s also a plaque on the wall - a memorial to John Kennedy - that includes the prayer of Saint Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace …”, and its quiet, thoughtful words move me more than the motto or the battleship, and I hope that’s the business we’re about in this place.
The Iowa State Capitol is a beautiful building - a gorgeous monument to the ideal of participatory, functional, fair government. And it is a working space, too. There’s not much separation between the public areas and the official offices. Everything is very approachable. The governor’s office is right there, off of the hallway. Same thing for the secretary of state and the attorney general. It’s almost like you could just drop in and say hi. Everything about the place points to the American idea that this is My State and My Country and that the government is this benevolent force which exists to maintain My Freedom, and that my title, “Citizen”, is the highest title in the land.
I stood on the glass floor in the center of the rotunda, about five stories below the peak, and pointed my camera upward. Everyone does that. It’s lofty and majestic and just being here I feel closer to freedom - like being in a cathedral makes me feel closer to God. Framing the dome is the closing line from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, "This nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The Lincoln quote got me thinking about the tone of the political discussions today. I’m not sure that I can make any sense of what is going on. Our government seems to function (or not) as an ongoing power struggle between parties, rather than as a group of representatives who are serious about doing the nation’s business. The power struggle often results in legislative stalemate, with each side pointing fingers across the aisle, “It’s their fault we can’t get anything done”. And then when something actually does get done, it’s because one party has seized a rare window of opportunity to force through a piece of legislation simply because they can.
Is this good government? Is this really what we want: two domineering political parties, each constantly demonizing the other, and occasionally ramrodding a bill through the system that they know - they know - will leave half of the country feeling like government was just done to them, rather than for them? And then the other side vows to dig in their heels and strike back when the time is right. The power pendulum swings back and forth as the Republicans and Democrats take their turns dominating congress and occupying the White House. And in their positions, they behave as though the other side isn’t worthy of respect or consideration. Where’s the integrity in this - the dignity? Where’s the unity of American interest? Where’s the high-minded government of, by and for the people?
I’m tired of the divisiveness. It’s unproductive. It’s unhealthy. I can’t, in good conscience, be a part of it in this election cycle. I’m a registered member of one of the parties - I’m not passionate about the whole platform, but I agree enough to usually cast my vote that party’s direction. But this year I’m a one-issue voter: the sanity of our system. My issue is our ability to live together as a nation and govern ourselves as a widely-diverse people who are committed to stay together because we are stronger together, and more prosperous together and safer together. Somehow we have to break free of the radical partisanship that is crushing our ability to respect each other, and neither of the two major-party presidential candidates will be able to do that for us - both are polarizing figures.
I only see one reasonable way forward, and that is for us, the voters, to call “time out” on both the Republicrats and Democans - send them to the corner and tell them to be quiet for the next four years. I’m not saying we should each give up our core conservative or liberal leanings, because each end of the political spectrum has something of value to bring to the table.
But, the truth that the partisans fail to embrace is that half of the people disagree with them, and governing with a “screw you” attitude only adds fuel to the overheating political climate. When we elect a candidate from either of the two major parties, the opposite party will actively work to undermine their efforts: one half of the government will be working to see the other half fail. How crazy is this? As a voter, I don’t always like the outcome of elections, but regardless of who sits in office, I’d like to see effective, efficient, forward-thinking leadership. I don’t feel like I’m getting that right now from our two-party system.
As dissatisfied as I am with our major parties and their candidates, someone has to occupy the white house, so what are our other choices? I’ve always had a hard time taking “third” parties seriously. Some of them seem to come from the lunatic fringes of political thought, and others are centered around a single social cause. I’m looking for a candidate and a party which can lead us right down the middle of the political spectrum. I’m looking for a candidate and a party which trades on the concepts of liberty and equality and personal responsibility. I’m looking for a candidate and a party which is willing to entertain ideas from anywhere, and with an application of that uncommon commodity - common sense - sort out the reasonable from the not.
Does this make me a utopian dreamer … that I actually believe in the government of, by and for the people? I know politics has always been a dirty business, but at the moment it seems downright filthy and warlike. To actually think that a better government is possible, am I too idealistic? Quixotic? Am I naive? Or am I a Libertarian?
The Libertarian philosophy of “we’re not in charge of you - you’re in charge of you” won’t sit well with the hard left or the hard right, both of which have definite ideas of how we all should think, behave and live. I, too, have definite ideas of how we all should think, behave, and live, but I’m not so arrogant as to think that I get to impose that determination on everyone else. The Libertarian “live and let live” attitude appeals to me. The Libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, seems to be a guy who won’t turn every cause into a crisis, won’t bother me about things that are none of the government’s business, won’t lead us into another war without a really, really good reason, and won’t raise my taxes too much. I like that he’s lived a productive life both inside and outside of politics. I like that he isn’t personally beholden to financial or industrial interests. I like that he doesn’t try to tell me that he’s smarter than me. I love that he’s a bit of an adventurer - a veteran of Mt Everest and Leadville. And mostly, I like that he isn’t the puppet of a major party, a blowhard, or a flake. For me, this time around, that’s enough.
Maybe I’m a political and historical romantic. I can’t read the Gettysburg Address without getting all lumpy throated. It’s optimistic, and egalitarian, and inclusive. It illustrates an idealistic picture of what the governmental process and purpose could be. In just a few words, it paints a picture of the America that I love and believe in and am proud of. This election cycle, I’m ready to try that again - a government of, by, and for us, rather than a self-serving party. I’m ready to pause for a national deep breath, take a break from the divisiveness, and choose a different way forward.