Friday, July 12, 2013

Our Politics Reflect Our Own Attitudes

This column orginally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, July 12, 2013

By Bill Gouveia


            Part of getting older is reminiscing about “the good old days”.  Maybe that accounts for my recent wistful longing for the politics of the 1970’s and 80’s.  It has to be more than the fact I’m rapidly approaching qualification for a series of senior discounts.


             You seldom hear folks speak glowingly of the politics of those particular decades.  We all thought it was a rough and tumble climate back then, with candidates too wrapped up in themselves to pay proper attention to the public good.  But compared to the self-serving political world today, they were on a par with the founding fathers.  (That’s sarcasm, in case any of their descendants are insulted).


            Back three or four decades ago, it was still possible for government to achieve something.  There were elected and appointed officials working towards a practical end, and trying to accomplish reasonable goals in a respectable manner.  Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they were not. 


            When they couldn’t get their legislative proposals approved, they moved on.  They worked out compromises with those across the political aisle.  They still complained and whined and pontificated, but also understood the people’s business had to be done – and constant deadlock was simply not an option.


            That is not the case today.


            Politics in the last 20 years has become a giant game of Tic-Tac-Toe between Democrats and Republicans.  Actual victories by either side are extremely rare, but both players have become experts at blocking the other from winning.  They keep making X’s and O’s in the hope that just once the opposition will make a mistake.  But the ultimate goal is no longer victory – it is just not losing.


            Now it is easy to blame that on the officials themselves.  They are the ones who get drunk on the power, fame and money that comes with high-level politics.  They are the folks who often decide the need for votes is more important than the need to do the right thing.


            But is it really their fault?  Are their actions influencing the public, or is the public creating the monsters they have become?  As it usually does, the truth no doubt lies somewhere in between.


            During the 1980’s this country had real leaders.  Ronald Reagan was the conservative President, and Tip O’Neill the liberal Speaker of the House.  President Reagan was considered pretty far to the right of the political spectrum, and Speaker O’Neill was his left side counterpart.  They did not always refer to each other in the most glowing of terms.


            But behind the scenes, each knew and understood the true role of leaders.  They treated politics like it should be treated in a democracy – as the business of running government.  Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, and each was always looking ahead with an eye towards the next battle.  But despite protestations to the contrary, neither ever really took it personally.


            Today each of these elected officials would be considered moderates in the overall scheme of things.  But would either have been able to continue to be themselves in this cutthroat political environment, where even the hint of being willing to compromise is considered a weakness of the highest order?


            I don’t know.  But I’m not sure it is our leaders and their backbones (or lack of same) that has brought about our current political climate.  I think it might be us.


            We the voters (in many areas of the country at least) are why politicians have to run to the extreme end of their party’s limits.  When people of moderate views stay home and leave voting to extremists, we get the government they want and we so ignominiously deserve.  When we reward obstructionists and punish those who are willing to consider opposing views, the result is officials who govern based upon fear rather than wisdom.


            Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were no more or less principled and dedicated than many of today’s leaders.  But they existed in a world and a nation where doing and accomplishing nothing was not considered enough to get re-elected. 


            We have lowered our standards in this country when it comes to leadership.  We are rewarding and almost requiring extremism.   And that is nobody’s fault but our own.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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