I met Jim Watson at the grocery store. Watson served in the Illinois House of Representatives from my district for 11 years, 2001-2012. I don’t think he’ll mind if I describe our conversation.
He laughed when he told me that he didn’t agree with most of what I write every week. Yet he and I are more alike than he might think, besides being two men food shopping on a Sunday morning. We agree that family is center of life, that we want to make life better in the place we live, and that we believe America can be a better nation. We disagree about exactly what better means and about what to do next.
Jim laughed even more when I asked him what he was doing now. He said I would hate his work: he is executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council, which describes itself as representing “the institutional interests of Illinois’ large integrated oil companies”. His job is to maintain good relations with governments, in Springfield and in Washington, that is, to lobby. But he demonstrated the congruence of our interests by bringing up the petcoke mountains which have recently spread black dust in Chicago neighborhoods. He thinks what I think – they need to be taken care of. That means his employers need to do something different.
I don’t hate his work. I don’t agree with Watson’s public arguments that this is all just normal business. His job is protect the interests of and thus keep costs down for petcoke producers. But he recognizes the problems they cause. Exactly what to do and how soon are certainly more subjects Jim and I disagree on.
Jim Watson and I agreed on one fundamental idea: we could talk together. He takes seriously ideas that he doesn’t share. I believe Jim implied that something I wrote stays with him and affects his thinking today. That’s something every writer wants to hear, which is why I express some uncertainty. Maybe I was just dreaming.
But I wasn’t dreaming about our interaction. It was friendly and open, accepting of our disagreements, and we eventually found a place where we could agree and shake hands warmly. There shouldn’t be anything noteworthy about that, but in today’s politics it is no longer the norm.
The new normal, at least for conservative Republicans, is to argue that liberals are hateful traitors, that our President is a foreign socialist Muslim, that a government in the hands of Democrats should be shut down.
Barack Obama is a middle-of-the-road Democrat. You can tell by the opposition to every one of his major policies from within the Democratic Party. The more liberal wing criticizes him for not having pushed a national health care system, for spying on Americans, for being too slow about gay rights. More conservative Democrats want him to reduce regulations and balance the budget. The Affordable Care Act is no more radical than Bill Clinton’s proposals, and Clinton was most definitely a middle-of-the-road Democrat. Yet Obama has been treated to unprecedented vilification by leading Republicans, and especially by Tea Party members.
The uncompromising right wing does not attack only Democrats. Republicans like Jim Watson are reviled as Republicans In Name Only by the new angry conservatives. The raging Americans who have gathered under the banners of the Tea Party attack politicians more conservative than Jim Watson. Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Thad Cochran of Mississippi are being challenged by even more conservative Tea Party candidates, who criticize them for every inch they have budged from rigid obstructionism in Congress.
These self-identified real Republicans can’t talk with anyone who doesn’t totally agree with them. You can see in their media rants, in their online comments, in their books and articles how unable they are to have a normal conversation, to listen to people with whom they disagree, to learn anything more about anything. Nothing changes their angry minds.
Parties of anger are dangerous. We saw that in the 1960s, when angry white political establishments used government authority to justify violence against people and their political formations they hated.
There hung a lesson – the marchers and protesters and strikers were right. Segregation was wrong, discrimination was wrong, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, Governors Ross Barnett and George Wallace, Birmingham’s police chief Bull Connor were all wrong. Their fury at those who wanted equal rights blinded them to human truths.
Today’s angry Americans and the radical politicians they vote for are also wrong. Not because of their political principles, but because they won’t listen to those with other ideas, won’t accept facts they don’t like, won’t treat political opponents with respect. If they can’t talk with the great majority of Americans who don’t share their ideas, how could they possibly govern us, except with violence?
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 11, 2014