A colossal job lies ahead
The contentious election is over but now begins the hardest work of all
Although Democrats and other anti-Trumpers could be forgiven for a moment of jubilation, in fact both parties should urgently be focused elsewhere. Today’s ebullience should be tempered by the gaping chasm that’s become our political landscape. The urge to celebrate — or the visceral instinct to seek revenge — must be put aside as we ponder why half the country isn’t speaking to the other half. When both sides are firmly convinced they hold the moral high ground — and make no mistake, they are — I don’t see a lot of hope we’ll be able to work this one out. As one who’s preached unity for so long, it’s difficult for me to reach this moment.
Half the country has checked out. With little fuss or fanfare, half the electorate has disengaged from the mechanisms we’ve always used to oil our orderly society. To be sure, many other-than-political factors played notable roles enabling this separation. The internet displaced normal media to the point that newspapers died by the hundreds and even broadcast media played catch-up. The resulting hybridized soft news blurs events, commentary and entertainment which, when added to the 24-hour news cycle and its endless commentary, further erases the line between news and opinion. Then back to the internet where anyone who can sound halfway intelligent — and quite a few who can’t — are able to produce “news” blogs firmly slanted to the tastes of their audiences. Suddenly our traditional sources of information are gone, replaced by new ones with little oversight.
As a moderate Republican, I like to think I’m able to look at the foibles of both parties dispassionately, getting a chuckle now and then from more devoted members’ antics. Over the years, I’ve watched the parties evolve, mostly evenhandedly. My current favorite fault with the Democrats is members’ penchant for the transient pleasure of embracing whatever faddish quackery-of-the-moment makes them feel most progressive. But while I am amused by my blue friends’ fleeting attention spans and flexible outrage, I must admit such an attitude does occasionally get things done.
On the Republican side, in past years my complaint would’ve sounded equally annoying-yet-benign. But their current fault is far more malevolent. Cursing any institution or organization with the faintest stink of “liberalism,” the right has come to feel comfortable accepting completely unvetted “facts.” If I hear Bill Gates owns Snopes one more time (he doesn’t, never has), I will implode.
Or that Bill Gates wants to put radio frequency identification (RFID) chips into COVID vaccines so people can be tracked via satellite — (he doesn’t; the Gates Foundation has little to do with vaccination other than funding some in Third World countries; further, RFID chips cannot be reliably read by scanners located more than a few feet away; and what’s the deal with Bill Gates anyway?).
When I asked a recent complainant — who’d just finished telling me about the RFID chips — to send me her source(s), she enthusiastically said she would. A moment later, a stack of sermons landed in my in-box, not one containing a mention of Bill Gates or vaccines. When pushed again to reveal her sources, she couldn’t. Going a step further, I asked her gently if she’d fact-checked any of it. No, she hadn’t, and when I started listing ways to easily vet the veracity of pretty much any claim, she stopped me. “Those are liberal sources,” she said. Liberal therefore untrustworthy, she meant — these were venerable organizations like Reuters and the BBC. Fearing her response, I asked if she knew of a single reliable fact-checker. “No, I don’t know any.”
This is hugely problematic. When you make sweeping claims that condemn people and organizations, you should probably check to see if they’re true first. If you reject accepted sources of truth verification, you risk sounding like a cartoon when you speak — and that’s putting it kindly. This is not to say Republicans don’t have some legitimate beefs with the system, but without the temperance of fact-checking, those issues have been magnified almost unchecked to become parodies of what they once were. Bill Gates is not sitting in an underground lair scheming to take over the world.
The conversations I mention are emblematic of a significant part of the GOP. When I recently made the remark that this attitude could effectively negate all established science, I was scolded for overstatement. But I’m not wrong — if truth no longer needs vetting, anything goes — and anything already established might eventually be up for questioning.
So how do we fix this? I’ve been preaching a message of unity for years — urging people to concentrate on the hundreds of things we have in common as opposed to the handful of things on which we disagree. While this point absolutely applies, it’s going to first take a significant effort by Democrats and moderates to extend a sincere olive branch. Since the election, I’ve heard numerous gloating Democrats vow they’ll never again have anything to do with the hateful people who followed Trump. I get that instinct, I really do. But those who feel it need to put it aside in the interest of the country. Further mockery and hatred will only further separate us.
Once Republicans become convinced Democrats are not out to bait or trap them, Republicans must step forward, too. They must take a hard look at some of the beliefs popular in their party, subjecting those beliefs to real verification and scrutiny. Moderate members must quell outrageous rumors and help shepherd those less disciplined. When you leave your echo chamber, it’s a lot easier to see error where it earlier lurked, obscured.
Perhaps I’m naive and we’re beyond hope. Frankly, I believe the people at the outer edges — the far right and far left — have little interest in conversation. But I’m still convinced those who occupy the more reasonable middle can be reconciled. It’s worth a shot. And it’s going to take all of us being patient and maybe even being kind to former foes.
Matt Meador Bio
Matthew Meador landed his first newspaper gig as a columnist at a weekly paper in 1984. The last of the moderate Republicans, Matt’s friends have always been Democrats. For every one issue people fight over, Matt is convinced we have at least 100 things in common — he believes if we talked out most of our differences, we’d find we were closer than we thought.
This essay originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2020 edition of the News-Register, McMinnville, Oregon.
Photograph © Clay Banks via Unsplash