Political loony tunes
One of my favorite cartoons when I was growing up was a Warner Bros. series involving Sam, a bumbling sheepdog, and Ralph, a dimwitted wolf.
As with the Road Runner cartoons, the plots of each episode were basically the same. Ralph would devise a stratagem for stealing one of the sheep that the sheepdog watched over — or for eliminating the sheepdog. He’d tunnel under the turf. Try to swing in from a trapeze. Amass a huge cache of artillery and explosives to blow up the dog.
All to no avail. Each time, Sam miraculously thwarted the wolf’s plans or evaded the attempt to eliminate him. The wolf endured a succession of frustrations that left him with black eyes, singed fur or some other ignominy.
Each episode ended with a twist, however. At a climactic moment of peril for either the wolf or the sheepdog, a factory whistle would blow. Sam and Ralph would then stop whatever they were doing in mid-conflict, walk together to a time clock, punch out and wish each other good evening. “Well, uh, better luck next time, Ralph,” Sam says in one episode, answered by, “Oh, sure, you can’t win ’em all, you know” from the wolf.
Unstated but clear was the assumption that they’d both be back at it the next day. Walking off into the sunset, the wolf put his arm around the sheepdog’s shoulder. “Nice day, eh, Sam?”
“Yep, good to be alive, Ralph” came the answer.
As a child, I guess I understood the cartoon as a primer in moral ambiguity. The wolf wasn’t really evil. He was just trying to do his job as a wolf. Nor was the sheepdog some paragon of virtue or intelligence; he had his faults, too. Both understood each other’s roles and, at the end of the day, after the fight, they left for home intact, on friendly terms.
Whatever those cartoons meant to me then, for the past few years I’ve begun to believe they also reflected a view of how America and American politics were supposed to work. Until recently there seemed to be, as in the cartoon, a fundamental notion in our civic life that our political parties, or just groups on opposing sides of an issue, could aggressively seek different ends, fight hammer and tongs for their own side of the proposition — but in the end, share some kind of mutual regard for each other as Americans engaged in the messy workings of democracy.
I’m not sure that notion has survived the political throes of the last decade. I recently met a businessman who lives in the Atlanta area. His home is in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, where Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel competed this summer for a vacant congressional seat. The white heat of national media attention and out-of-state money turned that local race into a referendum on the Trump administration — and into the kind of fight-to-the-death that seems to characterize politics these days.
My acquaintance, no big fan of Donald Trump, ended up supporting Handel, for his own good, local reasons. He had a group of friends, he says, with whom he and his family had enjoyed socializing — and with whom he had almost no political discussions. But when they learned how he planned to vote, they told him that his friendship was no longer welcome, that their families wouldn’t be hanging out with each other any more.
Whether anecdotes like this are more common now than before, it’s somehow less surprising to hear about them these days. Too many of us choose to get our information only from sources that support what we’re inclined to believe, and we talk and socialize only with people who think like we do. God help the politician who suggests working with the other party.
Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” recently gave a speech in Florida in which he lamented the lack of civility in politics today. He noted how “big data” has helped shift politics away from engaging with people on the other side, or at least people on the fence, and trying to persuade them to your position. Instead, political operators have so much information about voters that the game has become entirely about identifying those who already support your position and turning them out to vote.
In Virginia, where Todd lives, voters can vote in either party’s primary. Todd said he’s voted in both parties’ primaries, while his wife voted only in Democrat primaries. On occasion, canvassers for Democrat candidates had come to his home, he said, and he’d answered the door. When the canvasser learned his wife wasn’t there, the canvasser simply left — making no effort to talk to Todd, find out whom he planned to vote for, or persuade him to consider the candidate the operative was working for.
The lack of engagement with people on the other side makes it easy to dismiss their humanity — and to view them as evilintentioned and unworthy. It’s very hard to know what to do about it. Todd suggests holding those on your own side of an issue accountable when they step over a moral or rhetorical line, rather than citing similar transgressions by an opponent.
More broadly, we simply have to keep trying to engage, civilly, with those who don’t share our views. I have berated my 22-year-old son several times recently for dismissing those with whom he disagrees. He responds by asking, “Well, at what point do I simply get to ignore somebody who ignores all kind of facts and bases his opinion on nonsense?”
The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is, “Never. Because that person is still an American. And he votes.” Somehow, it seems important to America that Ralph and Sam still go home thinking it’s good to be alive — and that they’ll be back at it tomorrow.
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