Politicians show anger, but not much leadership

I am not tired of talking about race and bigotry, and conservative commentators who say liberals overstate its ongoing impact on politics aren’t tired of talking about it, either.

Every time some buffoon waves a Confederate flag, especially in front of the White House, it’s a reminder that a lot of people still depend on ignorance and prejudice to get their way. Our so-called leaders need these well-tested tools to forward agendas because it’s easier to evoke fear and hatred than to go to the trouble to educate and compromise on anything.

It doesn’t end at race or homophobia. Sen. Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin’s stunt at the World War II Memorial, and the omnipresent suggestion that President Obama is really a Muslim, aims at a base instinct for people who fear what they don’t understand. It’s wretched to think we elect leaders who craft messages based on the things that scare us instead of those ideals that could inspire us to be a nation of people striving to better ourselves.

Negotiation and compromise will win in the end, no doubt, but no one will feel good about the outcome because the process is always so ugly. Our drawn out argument has caused more confusion than anything and the only win we have left is nothing more than a cease-fire. In fact, we are already bookmarking a date for tomorrow’s fight that looks exactly like the one we had yesterday.

Politics is a dirty game, but it shouldn’t have to be. Showboating is a name recognition tactic. It works too well for new members of Congress and is a convenient way to incite outrage and get valuable face time – face time elected officials need to stay in the game. Such antics seem antithetical to the democratic process, where everyone is supposed to have a unique voice, but it’s a systemic method so ingrained in our Great Experiment we hardly recognize a debate if it lacks sneering barbs of disrespect.

I am fortunate to live in an urban area in South Florida where my ingrained biases are often challenged, but it wasn’t always that way. I grew up just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, a stone’s throw from Gettysburg, where the Civil War supposedly ended. I never encountered a Jewish or Muslim person until I left for college, and I believe I graduated high school with only one black schoolmate. I have no doubt the Congressional District I grew up in has since been gerrymandered to the point the students attending my high school today are just as sheltered from diversity as I was 25 years ago.

It would seem reasonable to believe in today’s information age that young people – all people – would be more exposed to the multitude of cultures, belief systems and ideological diversity in our country and around the world, and that exposure would open minds and expand our understanding of those people who are different than us. Yet quite the opposite seems to be happening. As we plug in to our preferred news outlets, have our old ideas reinforced, and see around-the-clock images of the angry people with whom we associate, we have even more reason to be intransigent in our beliefs.

Since the government shutdown, we’ve watched elected officials and opinion leaders hop from one simple sound bite to the next, proof that winning the endgame isn’t creating an informed electorate. Anger is the easiest motivator for political action and any image or idea that strikes fear in the heart of Americans is a skeleton key to open the next door to victory in the next election cycle. It’s hardly a lesson in leadership.

We’ve built a system where we elected the angry to be angry. Now we find ourselves frustrated, as though sending vitriol to Washington would make us a better union. Race, bias and bigotry — this time disguised in objections to the Affordable Care Act and our nation’s debt – are among the most popular platforms to use to push people to open up their pocket books and get them to the polls.

Tony Plakas is the CEO of Compass Community Center and can be reached at Tonyplakas@post.harvard.edu or you can follow him on Twitter @tonyplakas.

Copyright © 2013, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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