Like many of us I enter the New Year with some trepidation after a bruising national election. It is apparent that our nation is deeply divided politically and that change is the only thing that is certain to occur. What that change may be is as uncertain as it gets. Uncertainty causes fear and fear leads to despair. “Without hope the people perish” a biblical truth that is creeping into our national consciousness. There is for most of us a sense that we are going backwards as a people to a darker time and place where compassion and tolerance is not honored and basic civility is dead. It is no longer possible to disagree without being disagreeable; insults and threats are accepted as a part of our national dialogue. There are no limitations on the language used to condemn someone with whom we disagree and hate speech has become a political norm.
I remember a time when progressives felt almost as disenfranchised from their government as today. The dual national tragedies of the Vietnam War and Watergate gave liberal politicians the sense that they would be in charge forever. Then came Ronald Reagan and the Reagan Revolution. His sweeping victory in 1980 caused plenty of despair amongst the liberal rank and file. His campaign rhetoric described as divisive at the time was tame in comparison to what we have just endured, but fear of harsh measures his administration would bring was just as real as it is today. Then Ronald Reagan quit being a candidate and started acting like a president. In pursuit of his agenda he was willing to compromise and better yet he did not dislike his political opponents. His anger was unleashed on our enemies abroad, not fellow Americans at home.
I recall being at the Reagan Library to hear Senator Edward Kennedy give a speech not long before his brain tumor diagnosis. He walked in arm in arm with Nancy Regan and you could tell they both relished the moment. Ted Kennedy mentioned his political opposition to Ronald Reagan’s policies but also told us he could not help but like the man personally. One example he gave was how the president invited him and house speaker Tip O’Neil to the White House every St. Patrick’s day for a beer. Reagan wanted to celebrate the fact that three Irishman had all made it that far at the same moment in our nation’s history.
It could happen again, and if not, Ronald Reagan’s example of civility should not be denied. Those of us who fear that societal justice has been dealt a severe blow must not waiver in our opposition to policies designed to scapegoat the weakest that live amongst us, but in so doing we cannot become the thing we hate the most. Anger, fear, and intolerance are just as alive in our hearts as those that we believe have fallen victim to the power of such emotions. Rather let us courageously love our political opponents as fellow citizens of a great nation, and be an example of what we aspire to become. As Senator Kennedy once told us let us always believe that “hope still lives and the dream will never die.”
Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.