I write today about one aspect of our present political dialog that is highly disturbing to me. In many circles of discussion, particularly on the blogs, posts and Internet sites, there is a sense of anger that borders on despair, an apprehension about the future that is so powerful that those who embrace it have lost all hope. One otherwise sensible woman summarized it when she said to me, "I am terribly afraid — these are the worst times our country has ever faced."
I asked her if she would have liked to have lived during the Civil War. Well, no, she hadn't thought about that. How about during the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate was three times what it is now? Or in the early days of World War II, when Hitler was triumphant throughout Europe and Japan was driving down the chain of Pacific islands toward Australia? She hadn't thought about that either. Still, she refused to be comforted by the fact that Americans had always risen to the challenge in very difficult times, and that I believed we could do it again.
We need not go back that far to find examples of how Americans have solved their problems. After World War II, when the issue was our confrontation with world communism, fear and anxiety ruled on both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, the founder of the John Birch Society insisted that communists had infiltrated every level of our government and denounced President Eisenhower as "a paid agent of the communist conspiracy." On the left, Bertrand Russell, Britain's most prominent philosopher, urged us to give up the fight, saying, "Better Red than dead!" Americans rejected both extremes, stood fast against the threat in logical ways and watched as the Soviet Union finally crumbled of its own weight and disappeared.
We have worked through serious domestic problems as well. In many places, for close to a century, the guarantees given to slaves and their descendants by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were a dead letter, as states passed laws that found ways to deny those rights. As late as the early 1960s, millions of Americans could not vote; patronize the restaurants, hotels or stores of their choice; or send their children to decent schools, because of the color of their skins. Civil rights demonstrations stirred up as much passion as any subject we are discussing today.
We overcame those passions and changed things for the better in a truly bipartisan way. The earliest fighters for civil rights were Northern Democrats, like Hubert Humphrey, but the president who ordered U.S. troops into a state to guarantee those rights was a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower. When Southern Democrats worked to block passage of the Civil Rights Bill, the Senate leader who lined up the necessary swing votes to break their filibuster was a Republican, Everett Dirksen. Since then, we have had two African-Americans as secretaries of State and one as president. We still have race relation problems, but we have come a long way.
Are our current problems serious ones? Of course. Will they require significant changes in the way government does things? Absolutely. But do they justify the kind of fear and anger and despair that we keep hearing and seeing on cable television, talk radio, Internet sites and political blogs? No.
Solving today's challenges requires much more than shouting epithets at each other. Our past history tells us we have overcome equally difficult challenges, but the belief that we can still do it is a necessary factor in accomplishing it.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.