Churchill: One nation, undivided? Not quite


There was a time, not so long ago, when the National Rifle Association was a middle-of-the-road organization that looked out for gun owners from across the political spectrum.

That time is gone.

The NRA now promotes a far-right point of view and demonizes those who believe differently. If you’re not conservative, there’s no place for you in the modern NRA — even if you love to hunt and shoot.

The Sierra Club was once a moderate organization that searched for bipartisan approaches to environmental protection. In the 1960s, the group even had a lifelong Republican, Edgar Wayburn, as its president.

That Sierra Club is gone.

Today, it’s a mouthpiece for progressive orthodoxy that takes strong positions on issues, from abortion to immigration to health care, that have little to do with the environment. If you’re not liberal, there’s no place for you in the modern Sierra Club — even if you love every tree.

The point here isn’t to equate the influence and impact of the NRA and the Sierra Club. Of the two, the NRA certainly has more power.

The point is that both groups, like so many others, illustrate the incredible polarization of our politics. Increasingly, liberals and conservatives don’t just disagree; they each see the other as evil. Many are defined as much by their hate as their beliefs.

On this holiday meant to celebrate our common history and purpose, the country feels like it’s pulling apart. Evidence is easy to find, but one obvious example is the NRA recruitment video that’s been getting so much attention in recent days.

Have you seen it?

It is … what’s the right word? … I’m going to go with grotesque. The video portrays liberals as enemies of the people and neatly divides the country into two factions: us and them.

“They use their media to assassinate real news,” conservative firebrand Dana Loesch says before the video cuts to scenes of violence and rioting.

“They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance.”

Did you catch that? Not “our” ex-president. “Their” ex-president, as if the ongoing partisan civil war has already divided red and blue into two countries.

The video is one side of the divide expressing real hatred and distrust of the other. But you don’t need the NRA for that. You could see it with that “basket of deplorables” put-down, the violence that greets conservative speakers on college campuses and the way some Democrats are fighting the health care bill by depicting Republicans as soulless monsters who hate the poor.

Once you begin to feel that way, compromise becomes impossible. Effective government stops.

It’s also just nonsense, and the Fourth of July, the great American holiday, is a perfect time to think about how destructive rising tribalism has become — as the shooting at the congressional Republican baseball practice certainly shows.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong political views and advocating for them forcefully. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing politicians who deserve the heat.

But there is something wrong, I think, with believing that one side or the other is always right. The person who does so has stopped thinking. He or she has too easily accepted the false left-right dichotomy we’ve all had forced down our throats.

One of my favorite thinkers is Jane Jacobs, the author and urban theorist best known for stopping the state from ramming a highway through Greenwich Village. She’s admired by liberals and conservatives alike, in part because she rejected dogma and was willing to choose ideas based on evidence.

“I’m not ideological,” Jacobs said shortly before her 2006 death. “I think ideologies are blinders, always have been.”

Jacobs forever changed the way we build cities because she won over people who initially disagreed with her, which brings me back to the NRA and Sierra Club. Both are happily preaching to their own choirs and doing nothing to help their causes.

That NRA video will do nothing to advance gun rights. Nor will many conservatives be swayed to environmentalism by the argument, made by the Sierra Club’s executive director during a Fox News interview, that abortion rights help the planet by keeping the population sustainable.

Preaching to the choir is, however, a proven fundraising tool, and too many groups (and, sure, media outlets) are capitalizing on all the division and antipathy. To the loud and angry go the spoils.

We’re better than this, or at least we used to be. Going forward, open minds and a little humility wouldn’t hurt. It isn’t exaggerating to say that the future of the country depends on it.

Happy Fourth of July, everybody.

[email protected]518-454-5442@chris_churchill