The calls come sporadically, but their message is consistent.
They’re calls from exasperated conservatives. What they ask for is “balance” in our editorials, but what they really want is agreement.
They just can’t see why we can’t see the truths so apparent to them: Obamacare is a train wreck. The president is (pick one) a law-breaking tyrant transforming the nation or a disconnected and incompetent egotist who’d rather play golf than run the country.
Here is an excerpt from a recent voicemail I received after we ran an editorial supporting Obama’s request for $3.7 billion for better border control and assistance to unaccompanied immigrant children who’ve flooded the U.S.-Mexico border.
The female caller said the editorial had the situation backward. She said of Obama, “He hates this country, and he wants all these little, budding Democrats to stay here.” She said tightening the border “is the last thing the Fundraiser in Chief wants to do.”
Her position is as wrong as it is passionate. Obama has deported people in the country illegally with unseemly gusto, and he has supported more funding for border security.
Liberals, progressives or whatever you what to call them don’t have all the answers, and some of the ones they have are wrong. But their positions tend to be based on real life, real needs and facts. The angry conservatives too often focus on imagined villains (“He hates this country,”) hollow conspiracies (Benghazi) and illusions of persecution (the IRS hounded advocacy groups that applied for tax-exempt status if the groups supported conservative views. Actually, the IRS also gave special attention to groups with “progressive” or “blue” in their documentation).
Sometimes it seems these rants merit the response Woody Allen gave Annie Hall’s brother after he confessed to a fascination with car accidents. Allen stood up and said, “Right, well, I have to – I have to go now, Duane, because I’m due back on the planet Earth.”
It’s not that strident conservatives are disconnected from reality. They directly engage in life’s visceral issues: the death penalty, abortion, taxes, war, religious freedom. But they often deny the tides of history – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights – and stick with concepts refuted by experience. They still insist that cutting taxes on the rich will stimulate the economy and that prosperity will trickle down to the less fortunate. Even on issues where events proved the conservative course disastrous – going to war in Iraq or freeing Wall Street banks to take more risks – there is no admission of error and no introspection about lessons learned.
This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the gridlocked Congress or the ideologically split Supreme Court. We are dealing with the state version here. We’re in the midst of another trickle-down tax experiment that has left North Carolina starved for the revenue it needs. There’s skepticism about environmental regulations and climate change. There’s suspicion about the Common Core State Standards – principles drawn up by the National Governors Association and backed by big business – as being an Obama/liberal conspiracy to indoctrinate North Carolina’s youth. Public schools are regarded not as the foundation of our future but as a bloated government bureaucracy rife with sluggish teachers who should be easier to fire.
The two-party system strengthens the nation, and the yin and yang of liberal and conservative views has kept us on a balanced course. But that tension has gotten out of whack. A productive discussion is harder to have and effective policy harder to fashion. Perhaps conservatives have been knocked off balance by the polarizing effects of cable news, the proliferation of negative political ads, personal unease with Obama and a general nervousness about the nation’s rapidly shifting demographics and workplaces transformed by technology and globalization.
But there are signs of a change. Mainstream Republicans are beginning to push back against the tea party extremists. House Speaker John Boehner has gone along with the foolish plan to sue the president, but at least he stopped short of supporting Sarah Palin’s call to impeach him. Republicans have lost their taste for shutting down the government and obsessing over the deficit (which has shrunk sharply under “big spending” Obama).
Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine explored whether the Republicans have spent their reactive anger. The cover story focused on the GOP’s new cadre of intellectuals and asked whether the Republican Party is poised to become a party of ideas and reforms that address the needs of an economically battered middle class and the aspirations of the young and new immigrants.
Whatever the causes of conservatives’ unyielding resistance, paranoia and xenophobia, let’s hope their mood is shifting toward reflection and engagement. It will be good to have conservatives back on planet Earth where left and right can talk sensibly about solving its problems.
Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org