In the 45 years I have been lucky enough to live and work in Washington, D.C., and to watch American politics up close, there have been many changes for the better. We are today a more tolerant people than we were. Political leadership is no longer the near-exclusive province of the white, Protestant male. But there is at least one change for the worse that threatens, unless we collectively confront it, to sabotage our democratic values and tradition.
Here is that change as I have seen it: Years ago, when you and I might have disagreed on some public policy or proposed change in the law, neither of us hesitated to robustly question the other’s logic or facts or understanding. “Sorry, but you are simply and sadly wrong, Mark,” was a line I heard more than once from political adversaries who remained personal friends.
But in recent years, our public language has been debased. Now if you disagree with our side and position, you are not just misinformed or mistaken. No, you are now in addition to stupid almost certainly immoral, probably evil and, chances are, un-American.
Think about the difference: Once I have branded you an ethical traitor, it essentially forecloses any real possibility of our effectively working together in the future. Why would you want to collaborate with someone who has openly questioned your patriotism or your moral courage?
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We are no longer political opponents from different parties — we are instead mortal enemies from entirely different worlds. This is the environment that breeds ugly conspiracy theories.
From the political left and from a blind hatred of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney came the baseless charges that high officials in the United States government deliberately allowed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to occur. Twisted minds that believe this cabal are called “truthers.” Those of us on the liberal side have a solemn responsibility to denounce and deny this perverse lie and to distance ourselves from those who subscribe to it.
From “the grassy knoll” precincts of the fevered anti-Barack Obama crowd, we get the “birther” lie that the president was not born in Hawaii in the United States, but in Kenya or Indonesia or, perhaps, Liechtenstein. Think how unbalanced these believers must be: This had to be the master conspiracy of human history to plan so far ahead that on Aug. 13, 1961, in Hawaii’s main newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser, there was published an announcement of the birth, nine days earlier, of a son to “Mr. & Mrs. Barack H. Obama 6085 Kalanianole Hwy.”
After that, the “foreign agent” simply had to graduate from Columbia and Harvard Law, get elected to the U.S. Senate, capture the Democratic presidential nomination and then win the presidency by the largest popular margin in 20 years.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee rebuffed the “birthers” with his trademark humor: “Do you honestly believe that if there were an ounce of truth to that rumor that Hillary Clinton and her campaign would not have blown the whistle on it?”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was more blunt in his rebuttal: “Here’s what the Republican Party has to do. Now I think this is a good point. We have to say that’s crazy.”
But reason has not stopped the Arizona state legislature from passing a bill to require every presidential candidate to provide a birth certificate in order to be listed on the state ballot.
This is the poison harvest of a political paranoia that demonizes and dehumanizes one’s opponents. We, the real majority who care about our country, have an obligation to reject the politics of personal destruction and the Big Lie on every side and to give our political opponents the benefit of the doubt — that they may very well care just as much about America and their children’s future as we think we do.