I just spent a weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, giving a talk about my research on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who spent the war in Shanghai. I was barely a mile from Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. South Carolina is one of the reddest states, giving 55% of its votes to Romney. Now I’m back at home in Illinois, one of the bluer states, so safe for Democrats that Obama did not even campaign in his home state. Red state, blue state – what’s the difference?
If you widen your concern past elections, not much. The people I met in Charleston were happy about their unseasonably warm weather, over 60 degrees in early December, with flowers still blooming. On Saturday evening, my hosts took me to two neighborhood parties. Conversation revolved around local gossip, prospects for golf, and professional football at one party, and a more academic set of topics at the other. I met filmmakers and teachers, housewives and retirees, businesspeople and lawyers. People kicked back with mulled wine and chili, apple pie and beer, cheese and crackers. Except for the southern drawl, it would have been hard to tell that I was not home in Jacksonville or anywhere else in these United States.
Lately we have been inundated with political campaigning and reporting. Now that the election is over, stories about the heated negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” and other party political arguments dominate the news. Anyone who tried to understand our nation from the outside through the media might think that the Civil War, portrayed so briefly but gruesomely at the beginning of the fine new film “Lincoln”, was still going on: south against north, both coasts against the middle, cities against countryside, red against blue.
It’s not true. Americans in South Carolina and Illinois are thinking about the same things as Americans across the country. And most of those things have little to do with politics.
Certainly politics plays a role in nearly every area of life. The funding of Medicare will affect my mother’s financial future and my own. Moving the Social Security retirement age up a year or two would force millions of Americans to work a little longer than they planned. Home mortgages, school funding, and tax rates will impact our checkbooks. Infrastructure investment and defense spending, not to mention dealing with the enormous debts of Illinois, and the even more enormous debts of the federal government, will have long-term effects on employment and interest rates. There is much reason to care about which party wins elections.
But the differences between the parties fade into the background when we face the real issues in our daily lives. How are our children doing? Are our parents healthy? Who is going to rake the leaves? Did our team win? What do we have to do at work this week? Have we bought Christmas presents for everyone on our list? What’s for dinner?
On the airplane back to St. Louis, I met an oil and gas man from Oklahoma. I’m pretty sure he voted for Romney, because he said that Obama’s policies were not good for the oil and gas industry. We had plenty to talk about: where we were going and why; the Chicago Bears’ loss in overtime; the drought in the Midwest; chasing tornadoes; fantasy football; our mutual interest in history. I learned quite a bit about the obstacles to the wider production of electricity from wind power. We didn’t exchange names until we landed, but we made a connection that transcended any political differences. When we shook hands, what mattered was that we were interested in hearing each other talk about things we knew, were respectful of the other’s opinions, and realized we liked each other right away.
If you listen too much to political talk, you might come to believe that half of America thinks the other half is stupid, evil, and corrupt. But the few people who are signing petitions to secede from the US are the same ranters who call everyone else traitors, who don’t let facts get in the way of their opinions, and who keep trying to convince some Americans to hate other Americans.
Let them form their own country. Soon they’ll all hate each other. We can then continue to find the good and true things that unite us as Americans.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 4, 2012