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Thursday, June 21, 2012 02:56 am

How can we love America yet hate politics?

Recently, I was sharing stories with current political candidate about campaigning and musing about how nasty some people can be to those seeking office. Frustration with all things political is spilling over to create a hostile atmosphere toward candidates in general. During my campaign, a woman left a fiery, expletive-filled message on my home phone. Some people called me a baby-killer and others wrote about how stupid and worthless I was. My colleague was hit with a Pringles canister flung at him from a man on a porch. While noting that incidents like these are few in comparison to the many positive voter interactions, we both lamented what seems to be a marked shift away from basic civility in our public discourse.

Americans’ opinion of politics and government has sunk so low that a mob mentality seems to be taking root. They accuse politicians of underhandedness in the most banal of situations, judge politicians harshly even when they themselves are ignorant of the issue at hand and respond to conventional political practices in extreme fashion.

This internal discontent contradicts Americans’ fierce patriotism when the country is questioned or challenged from the outside. The United States is the world’s leader in large part due to the rights and liberties that are written into our Constitution and upheld by our political system. Some of our most revered achievements are directly attributable to honored political leaders and heroic actions and decisions of government. Yet, judging by today’s mood, many seem to love America but hate the political system that makes it great.

Most people will say they are inspired by the democratic principles that guide our nation. The words “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” or “of the people, by the people, for the people” mean much more than just a pledge committed to memory. These words represent values seared into our national conscience. They also describe the political system that produces the government that many now say is dangerous.

Declining living standards for everyone except the very rich lead to growing frustration and anger. A “protect what’s mine” mentality is settling into the country’s collective psyche. Moreover, a recession-weary public wants action and accountability.

Recent battles pit public sector workers against their private sector counterparts, whose own standard of living has eroded. Government spending has become enemy number one with the shadowy hand of government intervention and interference a close second. The implied narrative is that public employees – our teachers, group home workers, police officers, nurses, firefighters, social workers, etc. – are greedy buggers picking our pockets and stealing our children’s futures.

Public and private sector abuses and failures are rampant and the most egregious deserve aggressive scrutiny and zero tolerance. But in the process, let’s not destroy the delicate balance that makes the public and private sectors work together for the betterment of everyone. We need both a vibrant, broad-based private sector and a responsive, effective public sector.

Sadly, retreat by many voters into cynicism and disinterest fuels the most extreme elements on both sides of the electorate, creating an environment where pragmatic solutions get ignored, compromise becomes impossible and problems compound. Insisting on rigid either/or scenarios is a recipe for disaster. Most people understand that completely gutting government will not solve all our problems or that continuing to spend more money without accepting common-sense reforms is foolhardy.

Healthy relationships among the like-minded are hard enough to maintain, but reaching out across ideologies is truly hard work. Conservatives, moderates and progressives may never fully agree, but there is no reason to hate each other. So before you lash out at the person approaching your door to seek your vote, take a deep breath, smile and calmly tell them what’s on your mind.

Sheila Stocks-Smith was a candidate for Springfield mayor in 2011.
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