Culture Wars Have No Winners

Be Excellent

I refuse to believe that Nebraska (or the country) is as divided as the political class would have us believe. 

By political class, I refer not only to those actually in elected office but those who take up so much bandwidth on social media talking about nothing but what's going on in the halls of government. Also included in the political class (my definition) are the political parties and their adjacent groups who depend on promoting the perception of a war of good vs. evil in all things to stay relevant. 

I know (KNOW, because I saw their voter registration records in two successive campaigns for the legislature) that many of my friends and neighbors have never been registered with the same political party as I am (or was). And I don't care. They're my friends. We have things in common like church, kids, and how our friend down the street is doing after his surgery. We talk about whether it's going to stay warm enough to go ahead and start planting our gardens and when the theater renovation is going to be done (and sometimes we talk about our kids and grandkids). 

There are SO MANY things more important than any of the decisions that are being defined as "critical" in Lincoln, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. Culture war issues are getting us all stirred up as if any of them affect a majority of the population. 

For instance, the transgender issues we see are the focus of so much discussion in Nebraska today. A Williams Institute study (UCLA), estimates that the percentage of youth and adults that identify as transgender is lower than in the rest of the country, and about the same as they are in the rest of the Midwest. While it is true that youth ages 13-17 represent the largest share, I don't know if we know this is because of more common gender confusion at that stage of life or if it represents a population of people who are now able to identify themselves more openly. 

Regardless, I understand the desire of some politicians to "protect the children." That assumes, however, that the medical community--bound by a code of ethics and review boards that politicians and interest groups are not--would move directly from a child saying, "I feel like I'm something else" to performing permanent gender-altering surgeries. Could it happen in some cases? Maybe. But I have a tough time believing that it does. If we think so little of the medical profession, then why are we so concerned about their views on other legislation, like that related to licensing regulations or insurance reimbursements?

I meet with folks in my community with some frequency. I don't go out of my way to talk about political issues, but as a recovering politician, it's not uncommon for questions to be asked. "What do you think about what's going on in Lincoln?"  "Are those people really that awful to each other all the time?" "Do you think they'll ever get past (x issue)?" "Would you think about running again?"

My answers to those questions: "It makes me sad that an institution with so much richness and a history of pragmatic collegiality has become so lousy." "It seems like it." "Not if they don't start talking to each other like neighbors instead of enemies." And finally, "I miss the legislature of my first two years ('15-16) before it turned so incredibly partisan (along with the rest of the country). I couldn't serve today and would never get elected because I liked to talk to the people I disagreed with as much as those I agreed with."

Some in my "new" party have suggested "going local." By that, they seem to be referring to something of a "national divorce" or "secession." I wouldn't go that far. There are still some things that the state needs to do. Infrastructure. A basic system of laws and law enforcement. Public education to ensure that all of our children have at least a basic chance of success. Nationally, I think that in a country of 350 million people an 50 states, you have to have something that ties us together--including a (scaled down?) national defense, coordination of some of those infrastructure things, universality of rights enshrined in the Constitution. 

And as the country has grown, it makes reducing the size of government even tougher, because the needs and interdependence are greater.

But I still don't think we're all that divided. 

I think that once we get off social media and outside the halls of government, most of us aren't fighting with our neighbors. Most of us recognize the good in the folks we talk to regularly, even if we might not see political priorities similarly. And we value the relationship more than we do fighting a battle that can't be won in our town anyway, so we shrug off our differences over that cup of coffee and move on to the next thing. We recognize that whoever our elected officials are, they'll probably do the best job that they can and represent us the best that they can, and if a critical mass of us is mad for their votes,  we'll vote them out. That, after all, is how we've been doing things throughout the country for over two centuries. 

I've been talking about this a lot to friends and family lately. We're not impressed with what's going on at either the state or the national level. We think that ALL people ought to be treated with kindness and respect by virtue of their humanity. Will some do bad things? Yes. Will some live in a way that we neither approve of or understand? Yes. But that doesn't excuse our decision to do or say bad things to them. Indeed, it seems to me that this just ensures that things will get worse, as bad feelings on both sides accelerate. 

For most of us who generally try to be decent and considerate to others, the direct impact on our daily lives of government is considerably less than the credit we give it when we allow ourselves to get whipped up into a frenzy over some issue. 

I believe in active citizens who think through the issues and inform their public officials of their views personally. That's the ideal. 

The ideal is corrupted, though, when a minority (or even a majority) becomes crude and ugly when expressing their opinions via social media. NONE of us likes to be beat up publicly. No matter what side you're on, we're still human. As the one who went to the mailbox to collect the political mailings attacking me in 2018, and who had to inform my mother and mother-in-law that yes, I was alright and that it wasn't a "big deal" because they'd gotten those mailings, I can tell you that they hurt. Sometimes a lot. Even when there was a sliver of truth, the deliberate hurt that seemed to motivate the distortions was tough. Publicly hurting anyone seems contrary to my practice of Christianity (Matthew 7:2; Luke 6:31), and contrary to just being a decent person. 

Ultimately, I'd like to see us all set a better example for the next generation. If we think that a "win" on a particularly hot-button issue will fix things and that then we'll be able to go back to being decent to one another, I think we've got something else ahead of us.  It's tough to unwind the clock, and we won't be able to go back if we don't stop what we're doing. We will, I'm afraid, eventually revert to the life Thomas Hobbes described:

No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Start by talking with your neighbor about their flower bed, or ask them about the renovations on their house. Say "hi" to the person in front of you at the grocery store, no matter what the bumper sticker on their car says. I think you'll find that they're not really so awful.

I love to fight policy battles--I like the gamesmanship and the strategizing. But in all my time on the school board and in the Legislature, I don't think I ever let a policy battle get more than temporarily personal. It was a difference in opinion about how we could get to a better school, state, or country--not whether my "opponent" had nefarious intent (because I could talk to him/her, and try to understand, and not just assume). 

So fight those policy battles, but be more like Bill and Ted in the end. 





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