Whenever I hear local folks use “outrage speech” to rail against our civic institutions, I’m reminded of one of the most prescient political passages in American history.
Abraham Lincoln was running for president, the country riven by irreconcilable differences. At Cooper Union, in New York City, Lincoln faced angry, slave-owning opposition:
“Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”
While he went on to win the presidency, Lincoln couldn’t persuade the South to avoid civil war.
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The Cooper Union speech comes to mind often nowadays, particularly when I hear politicians encourage states to ignore federal decisions, such as samesex marriage court rulings. Or when Ted Cruz and fellow antediluvian New Confederacy pols push “nullification,” shuttering the government and withholding money from our national security needs unless their demands are met.
They act as if the Civil War never happened.
“Rule or ruin” comes to mind when I hear the Republican House majority has voted — for the 67th time — to repeal health care reform.
I think Cooper Union when the Republican House speaker undermines the president, and our international relations, with an invitation to a foreign leader to address a joint session of Congress — an unprecedented affront to the separation of powers.
As a senior American diplomat remarked to the Israeli press on the speaker’s reckless, disgraceful breech of protocol: “There are things you simply don’t do.”
Indeed, you don’t trash the 229-year-old American tradition of leaving party differences at the water’s edge when dealing with foreign policy. You don’t scream “You lie!” in the midst of the president’s State of the Union speech. You don’t call the president a “Kenyan Muslim socialist” or a “traitor” or a “halfbreed” because you don’t like his policies.
What you’re supposed to do is win the next election by convincing enough people to see things your way. That’s what democracy used to be about. But apparently that’s not how many Republicans and their Tea Party sappers view it anymore. It seems they’d rather ruin government than have their political opponents rule it.
This radical, proto-authoritarian thinking has taken root at the top of the political right nationally. It’s become a boil in need of lancing in San Luis Obispo County.
Even here, there are things “you simply don’t do.” But the far right does them anyway, because churlishness is their new norm.
One of the things “you simply don’t do” here is wear your partisan stripes on your sleeve when you’re a county supervisor.
For decades, nonpartisanship worked: Jerry Diefenderfer, Harry Ovitt, Howard Mankins, Ruth Bracket, Katcho Achadjian — all were conservative Republicans on the Board of Supervisors. Kurt Kupper, Evelyn Delany, Peg Pinard, Bud Laurent, Shirley Bianchi — all were liberal Democrats.
And they all got along, for the most part. They worked together to accomplish things. Some actually liked each other. They were never admonished for their civility by dyspeptic partisans.
Nonpartisanship on the Board of Supervisors is more than just a polite façade: It’s fundamentally necessary to do the people’s business. This generations-old custom exists to assure voters that the people’s board is there to serve all county residents, not just the mob snarling in the boardroom on any given Tuesday.
Another thing “you simply don’t do” is politicize the chairmanships of the board and other countywide agencies that oversee things like our air quality, transportation systems and regional land use. Doing so upends the delicate balance of collegiality necessary for disparate personalities and belief systems to work together.
Until now. The far right in this county has crudely rammed inexperienced politicians into elected leadership roles, a bread-andcircuses show of force at the expense of respect, cooperation, collaboration — and sound public policy.
We should now expect contentious issues — a gravel quarry in Santa Margarita, an oil-train depot on the Nipomo Mesa, a festering water crisis in the North County — to become even more unsettled while these narrowminded partisans try to learn the nuances and responsibilities of actual leadership.
The coin of the realm amongst the right in their devolution of our democracy is “outrage.”
In the book “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility,” authors Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey M. Berry define “outrage” as political speech and behavior aimed at provoking anger, fear and moral indignation through the use of categorical statements, misleading or inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks and partial truths about opponents.
They observe that “misrepresentative exaggeration” and “conspiracy theory” are the two prevalent forms of outrage discourse used today.
The merchants of outrage in our county inhabit the public meeting as their preferred platform. Liberal politicians and their reason-minded colleagues are their favored targets.
The aim of the outraged is to rule or ruin in all events.
And Lincoln wept.