Vince Lombardi is often quoted as saying “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” (It was actually UCLA Bruins coach Henry Russell who said it but, hey, facts today can be whatever you want them to be.)
It seems an obsession with winning has grabbed our politics and shaken all interest in governing and public service right out of it. And it’s not just winning, but winning at any cost.
Ten years ago David Callahan wrote a distressing book called The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. He presented countless examples of how the “me first” generation’s self serving values had contributed to a winner take all mentality and had so corrupted the social rules that cheating to get ahead was not only acceptable but systemically encouraged, at least by and for those at the top. His premise: As long as you win, cheating is forgiven. His explication of unspoken rules in professions like business, law, medicine, and sports that practically required cheating to succeed rang true and was depressing.
It has been evident at least since the rise of Newt Gingrich that the ends in politics were justifying almost any means. National partisan politics devolved into all out warfare, fights to the finish. Where once the rule was if you can’t beat ‘em compromise, now it’s if you can’t beat ‘em give no quarter and do everything possible to keep them from gaining any ground. Somehow, national partisan politics moved from horse trading, a system in which everyone gets a little something, to a zero sum game where losers, which can be half the country, get nothing.
The Parties are not equally to blame for this, but both do participate.
Our new president is both a product and a caricature of our national obsession with winning. By convincing Americans that they were loosing on every front—to Mexicans, Muslims, China, urban elite, and the Washington establishment–he created a constituency of voters willing to tear down the existing social and political order in hopes of coming out on top. And, while Mr. Trump is not particularly partisan in his personal politics, winning is so important to his psychological identity that he fabricates scenarios in which he is the best and on top; and “loser” is the worst name he can think to call his enemies.
Are we doomed to a downward spiraling political system of combat where opponents are not partners in governance but enemies to be vanquished? The evidence suggests the answer is yes, at least for the foreseeable future.
From an Administration now dominated by angry men with axes to grind and grievances to redress the tone is combative, vindictive, and threatening. We probably won’t be seeing leadership for healing divisions or building social unity from them. To the contrary, the White House and Congressional Republicans appear ready to take from the left as much as they can as fast as they can while they can. When one side declares war and moves to battle, the other, if the stakes matter, has little choice but to do the same.
So where can we look for change? To ourselves, to we the people?
Yes, of course, start with ourselves, but it won’t be easy. With hyper-partisanship and its ubiquitous use in fundraising has come a trickle down of ideological polarization and self-segregation. Confounded and compounded by confirmation bias, politicized citizens are encamped. We don’t know each other and most of us don’t really want to even when we say we do; we don’t speak with “them” because we are convinced they don’t care and will not listen or understand if we try. Now we have the added challenge of trying to make peace with our neighbors while girding for battle. Is it possible to do both at the same time? I don’t know.
Since attacks from the Trump Administration are coming on so many fronts it seems possible we could find common cause with our “other” neighbors on some issues. Social Security and Medicare come to mind, or net neutrality. Maybe some conservatives would oppose repealing the ACA without a replacement, or defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the Endowment for the Humanities. Can we make new connections and alliances and collaborate on less partisan issues? For liberals as well as conservatives it might require stepping outside of partisan identity politics and looking afresh at specific issues. Can we do that?
I intend to try, and will report on the effort.