Summer is the time for conversation, at the beach or in the mountains, on the front porch or a park bench, wherever we find the change of pace that pleases. It’s a time for stretching and refreshing body and mind, for looking at things with a fresh focus. At least that’s how it used to be when friends and family gathered together for lively talk after jumping waves, hiking new trails or climbing the stairs of an old lighthouse.
The seasonal regrouping encourages us to enjoy and challenge the familiar, an opening to expand perspectives for our daily lives.
But conversation these days is of a different order than it used to be, even on a dreamy Carolina seashore. Political debates dominate the social as well as the intellectual landscape as we try to grasp the kind of country we have become and how we want it to be. The leaders we choose in the next election will both reflect and influence how we think of ourselves.
The Democratic debates could help open our eyes to different possibilities from different candidates, if we measure what we hear against what we know. But it’s important to cut through the spin that attempts to persuade by endless and empty repetition.
It’s particularly important to avoid the “shape-shifters,” those who rearrange an image to suit the politically correct attitude of the moment, who distort time past to fit into time present. That hardly inspires trust or confidence. Those of a certain age recall the authoritative voice of Walter Cronkite, who anchored the CBS Nightly News between 1962 and 1981. He was both soothing and serious in reporting facts. That kind of figure has vanished with the ascent of the internet and cable television.
We now watch and listen to talking heads that dispense the news with biases paraded as badges of honor, whose angry “insights” are swiftly repeated on Twitter and Instagram by sympathetic supporters and outraged antagonists. The president’s tweets usually don’t add clarity to the confusion of these infomercial marathons that reduce argument to exhortation.
Donald Trump dominates the conversation, but in our Babel of polarities we suffer broken conversations of anger and arrogance. Fragments of ideas flit across screens like liberated stink bugs that are quickly (but warily) squashed or flicked away. The Procrustian bed of identity politics squeezes issues into narrow categories of thought, reinforcing prejudices.
This should be an exhilarating time of year, with sun, showers and lively discussions, but instead conversation often veers toward the arrogant and acrimonious. Ideas are often offered to feed ideological appetites rather than stimulate creative thinking. Few do the history homework to examine complexity in the context of another time.
Democrats eager to damage former Vice President Joe Biden, to reduce his lead in the public opinion polls, were thrilled by Sen. Kamala Harris’ cheap shots at him recalling her personal experience with busing. As if by magic, T-shirts of her as a little girl in braids suddenly appeared online for $30 each. She was our new Dorothy, having escaped from Oz, and the applause failed to note that she was born to privilege. Her father was a professor at Stanford, her mother a medical researcher.
Her personal anecdote was aimed at black voters, whose support for her was weak and who were spared thinking about why mandatory busing lost its popularity among both blacks and whites as neighborhoods were broken and disrupted. Children were dispatched to schools great distances from where they lived. Both blacks and whites at the time polled heavily against the arbitrary boundaries for busing, coldly drawn by government bureaucrats to meet quotas of desegregation determined by politics, not the values of the community where people actually lived.
“The discussion in this race today shouldn’t be about the past,” Biden said. “We should be talking about how we can do better. How we can move forward.” Who could argue with that?
The problems of the past as perceived in the present tense create a schism in the Democratic Party that is the result of both ideology and social media. This growing schism, says Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books, is the conflict between “the younger, urban and more left-leaning people who carry out a daily and often pestiferous political dialogue on Twitter, and the older and more traditionally liberal-to-moderate people who make up the actual backbone of the party across America.”
You don’t have to be a Democrat, Republican or independent looking for workable solutions to agree with his conclusion: “If there is a division within the party that will bring it to ruin in 2020, this is it.” This is the conversation Democrats need if they’re serious about taking on Donald Trump. And if the rest of us listen, we might learn a thing or two as well.
Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.