There are times in life when having adult conversations are essential. 2021 is one of those times. With the Biden administration in place, a new Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat-led majority in the U.S. Senate, and an emboldened Republican House minority, the country has an opportunity to put an end to what too often substitutes for public debate today — ad hominem attacks, alternative facts, cancel culture, hypocrisy and hyperbole.
After 12 years of growing division — eight under President Obama and four with President Trump — and divides as great as they have been in 50 years, wouldn’t it be refreshing to have fact-based discussions based on knowledge of history, government and politics? There are important challenges facing this country, and we will solve none of them if we do not come to the public forum with open minds, knowledge, data and a spirit of civility, even when we may disagree on policy issues.
In his Inaugural Address, President Biden called for unity. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to sign 17 executive orders on his first day in office, with plans for more in the coming weeks. Presidents Trump and Obama each signed more than 200 executive orders during their tenures. Executive orders diminish the voice of the people, bypassing Congress; they do not build a consensus or seek to find mutually agreed-upon solutions. Unity starts with open conversation and debate, which has not been happening from either side of the aisle.
One barrier is the level of hypocrisy and complete lack of a sense of history. As despicable as it was, do we really think what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is equivalent to the British invasion of Washington in 1814? Some, without irony, referred to events on Jan. 6 as a “coup.” Coups are an overthrow of government, such as Augusto Pinochet’s seizure of power in Chile in 1973 or Napoleon’s declaring himself French Emperor in 1804.
A more realistic comparison to the recent breach of the Capitol would be the 1954 armed attack on the U.S. House of Representatives by Puerto Rican nationalists. The overheated rhetoric we hear on television doesn’t do anything to bring Americans together. Instead, we should focus on bringing the perpetrators of the riot to justice, rather than continuing to whip up public sentiment for political ends.
It is time to have a real conversation about the lack of integrity of our elections. We need to address why it is that many states refuse to require ID for people voting and why some are against that policy. Is it logical to require ID to get the COVID-19 vaccination, fly on a plane, or buy cigarettes, but not to vote?
We need to admit that voter fraud can and will happen. A national database shows that even in a smaller state like Arizona, since 2012 there have been 18 criminal convictions for offenses such as duplicate voting, fraudulent use of absentee ballots, and false registrations. Rather than denying the existence of voter fraud, let’s make it difficult to perpetrate — while also encouraging as many people as possible to exercise this most fundamental of American rights without undue difficulty.
We must also face up to deficit spending and the national debt – with all facets of the budget up for scrutiny, including defense and entitlements. The numbers are incomprehensible: a national debt now over $27 trillion dollars, an increase of over 200% since 2008. This means a conversation about what the true role of government should be and discussions around the morality of saddling future generations with such debt.
Lastly, we must talk openly about freedom of speech. We need to understand the origins of the First Amendment and grasp how restrictions on speech have been the first moves toward totalitarianism through history. And, those who wish to restrict speech they don’t like today must realize it may be their speech that someday gets restricted next. Do we really want to give government (or private industry) the power to decide what is acceptable speech and what isn’t?
Whatever one’s political views, these conversations need to be two ways and address issues from both sides of the aisle. Climate change, gun violence and health care — top agenda items for the left — are areas where the right needs to also listen and be part of a conversation.
There have always been great challenges facing our nation, and it would ignore history to suggest that today’s challenges are greater than those in the past or that they cannot be overcome. But a functioning democratic society demands that intelligent thoughtful debate be the foundation for solutions to our most pressing problems. It has been a long time since we’ve had that foundation. Perhaps if we re-build it, the country will find the unity President Biden has called for.
• Steve Slattery is executive vice president at The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership.