Somewhere amidst the chaos of Jan. 6, one of the invaders inside the U.S. Capitol building blurted out: “Shouldn’t we set up a government?”
Good luck with that. Any “government” conceived by this diverse and disorganized mob, with or without the assistance of Donald Trump, would have been dead on arrival. There seemed to be no plan beyond a somewhat muddled intent to reverse the 2020 presidential election and put Trump back on the throne, no real thought as to what that would mean, nothing in all of the shouting that might have moved society forward.
Our government doesn’t have a reverse gear. Nor is it merely a soccer ball to be kicked back and forth by various partisan groups.
As in all periods of presidential transition, we’re seeing a lot of lists now ranking the nation’s most pressing problems — the pandemic, the economy, climate change, racial injustice, political polarization, etc. Let me add another: Too many people are hopping mad because everyone else doesn’t think or feel exactly the way they do.
Which makes no sense. After spending nearly 250 years bringing forth perhaps the most diverse society on earth, we now complain because we have too many differences.
I remember seeing a bumper sticker that proclaimed: “Before we can learn to love each other, we must first learn to leave each other alone.”
Since universal love doesn’t appear to be on the immediate horizon, the second part of the above statement is thought-provoking. Why can’t we just leave each other alone?
Perhaps the prevalence of “group-think” has something to do with it. Given human nature, it can be exhilarating to find others who share the same viewpoint with the same passion. It helps to validate us, and the Internet has made this possible like never before.
I’ve read that some members of QAnon have stuck with the group even though they always found its central conspiracy theory about satanic, cannibalistic Democratic pedophiles a little hard to swallow. Instead, they just felt drawn to the energy and commitment of others in the group and appreciated the fact that even some of their own strange beliefs were accepted. Plus, rallies are fun — just ask Donald Trump.
Similarly, I find it hard to believe that very many of those renegade Republican legislators who fell in line behind Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz thought that the presidential election was rigged, especially since Bill Barr, of all people, said it wasn’t. Something else drove them to think joining the rebellion was a good idea.
The problem with group think is that logic often becomes replaced by that old “the enemy of my friend is also my enemy” concept. That’s when the trouble starts.
It’s one thing to have warm and fuzzy feelings for the Second Amendment, quite another to strut down a city street brandishing an automatic weapon with your safety off and your attitude showing; one thing to demonstrate against police brutality, another to use that demonstration as cover while wrecking and plundering some innocent small business.
Simply disagreeing with someone does not give us the right to do them harm. Nor should it necessarily be the focus of our relationship with that person.
Think about the most successful small businesses (the ones not shuttered by that old devil COVID-19). The people who work there come together every day to do a job and solve whatever work-related problems might arise. It has nothing to do with their politics, religion, ethnicity, or sexual affinity, most of which they keep to themselves.
The government should function much the same way, even though there will always be disagreements to work through. Instead, many elected officials have become fixated on intra-party rivalries and ideological grandstanding, neither of which have much to do with actually running the country, state, or locality. Sure, it’s probably more entertaining than, say, the grunt work of health care reform or infrastructure plans. But every hour spent publicly polishing their ideological credentials or talking about some election two years down the road is an hour that could have been spent far more constructively doing the people’s business.
For the most part, nobody else cares about the trajectory of their political careers.
A city council member I knew used to say: “Potholes have no politics.” That’s true enough, but politics often have potholes. One of them is the temptation to decide that the people who voted for you already know what you’re all about, the people who didn’t are best ignored, and that means there is no need to explain anything to anyone. That willful ignorance is why some politicians are horrified to find that what they thought would be a benign meet and greet with the folks back home has taken on the atmosphere of a lynch mob.
When most large companies plan a shift in internal policy that could be disruptive, they often hold a mass meeting with their employees to try to explain the reasons behind that decision. Government, at any level, rarely bothers. Even worse, many politicians intentionally focus on our grudges and our fears to support their agenda of getting elected.
Thus, it all becomes personal, causing many of us to become hyper-defensive about our viewpoints. Most of the time, that’s counterproductive. Imagine if a defense attorney stood before a trial jury and said: “My client is innocent. If you can’t see that, you’re an idiot.” Sometimes, an attempt at persuasion is essential.
To complicate matters, we now have a very active Thought Police, amplified and aided by social media, eager to tell us what someone in public life wrote on his college dissertation paper in 1971 or posted on Facebook last month.
In reality, context matters. If a cop is accused of brutality towards an arrestee, some of his or her beliefs espoused in personal conversation might be relevant. On the other hand, if someone in that position can put their feelings aside and treat everyone dispassionately, it shouldn’t matter whether or not they get their news from CNN or Fox.
Ideology without a concrete goal tends to retreat into itself.
Those involved in the civil rights marches of the 1960s were specifically attacking unfair segregation laws — not white people in general — and those demonstrations were aimed at individuals who had the authority to make changes.
Conversely, what is the point of a white supremacist or neo-Nazi protest? No governmental entity has the power to make being black or Jewish illegal, and those groups are not going to obligingly return to “where they came from.” There is no achievable goal, so why would those protestors go through all the trouble? Maybe because it makes them feel important, but that’s a drug with a short shelf life.
It would seem to make more sense for these extremists to move out to the less populated portions of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, or the Dakotas, where they could go for weeks without ever having to look upon a non-white or Jewish person. Out there, they could be “supreme” to their heart’s content without bothering anyone else.
You’ve probably heard the oft-repeated Serenity Prayer: “God give me the patience to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In our society, we no longer seem to know the difference.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."