Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dividing America

I am on the mailing list for an entertaining morning read from the investment advisors over at Penserra Securities called "The Marginal Prophet."  A couple of weeks ago, in his "From the Cheap Seats" section,  the author posited this:

While commenting on the veracity of the Occupy Anything movement, Robo asked the question, “When did our society become so polarized?”I can point to the exact moment; Monday; October 29th, 2007. Though I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, that moment in time is still burned into my memory banks. I was five months into my second retirement, and I was Occupying “Flippers,” a local greasy spoon. The Dow Jones was a shade under 14,000, the value of my home had two commas in it, and I was about to wolf down a fiendishly delicious cheeseburger and fries. Life was not just good. It was very, very good. Just as I picked up my sloppy three-quarter pounder, I was interrupted by a unique ringtone from my iPhone; a barking dog. It was Robo. “Hey there, Little Brother, XYZ (the name of the company is withheld to protect the innocent) is trading at $19,” he gushed. “We can do this!” I gave my meal a brief pardon and replied, “That’s right, Little Brother (we call each other ‘little brother’- don’t ask). Let’s always remember this feeling, because it will never get better than this.”Little did I know how right I would be. In October 2007, a tea party was what old women threw to amuse themselves. People occupied jobs instead of parks. Debates between a black male presidential candidate and a white female presidential candidate seemed downright civil. So long as asset prices kept going up, tempers kept going down. American society was on a roll.Here’s a snapshot of where we are four years later. Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on where the sun sets. The Federal Reserve is out of bullets. Billionaires stare down millionaires in the NBA. Tea Party advocates go to work everyday ready to eviscerate unemployed college graduates who Occupy their way. People don’t work for paychecks: they intern for the opportunity to get a paycheck. Obama seems impotant, and shooting pepper spray seems the best way for people from campus police to Black Friday shoppers to communicate their differences.When did everybody get so mad? It's painful out there, for sure, and there are plenty of issues to be upset about. But when did compromise become a four-letter word? Sports experts like to say that winning covers a lit of ills. So too does a rising stock market. And a rising housing market. And a job market where asking your boss for a raise isn’t met a scowl and a pink slip. A rising tide may lift all boats, but a falling tide reveals what really lies underneath the water.C’mon America. We’re better than this.

I don't disagree that being civil is a whole lot easier when the Dow is rocketing through 14,000, Europe looks stable  and the Chinese are content with making cheap goods instead of hemispheric domination BUT, I do think there's more to incivility than a rising stock market.  I was not alone.  Another reader of the Marginal Prophet sent him this response, which he published the next day:

I think your date of October 27, 2007, pinpointing when our society became sopolarized, was the tipping point.  However, it took two decades to build to thatpoint, and I give equal, if not greater weight, to the following dates: (1) July 1, 1987, when Ted Kennedy took to the floor of the US Senate and trashedRobert Bork, who just minutes earlier was nominated for the Supreme Court by RonaldReagan.  Kennedy knew his tirade was BS, as did his fellow Democrats, but they stuckto that story and forever changed the "process" to nominate and approve SupremeCourt justices.  Facts and truth no longer matter to the process, just innuendo andsmears. (2) December 19, 1998, the day the U.S. House of Representatives impeached BillClinton.  Although Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction ofjustice, it will be forever linked in the public mind that he was railroaded over aprivate encounter. (3) November 8, 2000, the day George W. Bush was elected president, and it wascontested by Al Gore. To me, the contested Florida recount in Bush/Gore marks the turning point for whenthe America I knew ended.  Before that election, the supporters of the losing sidealways threw their support behind the presidency (not necessarily the man), nomatter how nasty or brutish the campaign.  They may have preferred a differentoutcome, but there was still some respect for the office.  After Florida, theliberals/progressives never accepted Bush as "legitimate'" and set out to destroyhim personally, and did great damage to the office of the presidency in the process.The Republicans have returned the favor with Obama.

An interesting counterpoint and I don't disagree with the dates.  I would add that what happened to Robert Bork was repeated with Clarence Thomas and others.   We have reached the point in the selection process of Supreme Court nominees that it's best to put ups someone that is plain vanilla with no track record than to nominate a serious juris doctor.  Nevertheless, I submit there are dates even further back that began the journey to the hanging chads of Florida.  Allow me to posit a few:

1. May 4, 1970: The Kent State Shootings.  The Ohio National Guard fired 67 live rounds into a crowd of students killing four American citizens.  Sure, there had been rioting in the town, a lot of threats had been issued about burning down the ROTC building and the like - but you DON'T fire on your own citizens!  This galvanized the anti-Vietnam war movement and gave them moral superiority.  The backlash was taken out on American GI's returning from the war.  It was inexcusable, but I submit,  it was the beginning of our polarization.

2. December 13, 1974: North Vietnam resumed combat with South Vietnam ignoring the Paris Peace Accords.  President Gerald Ford asked the Democrat controlled Congress for funds to support the South Vietnamese and they refused.  This ultimately led to the fall of Saigon and the humiliating American exit from Southeast Asia. Democrats became linked forever to weak defense;  the military - an institution which reports to the civilian government - would never fully trust Washington again.

3. April 19, 1993: Attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.  OK, David Koresh was a certifiably kooky and creepy religious nut with a lot of guns.  (This country was founded by religious nuts with guns.) But what gave Bill Clinton and Janet Reno the right to use tanks - TANKS! - against a bunch of American citizens...well, some 20 odd were Brits - but overall 76 people were incinerated.  For what? Because they thought Koresh was the new messiah?  By that logic, the Justice Department should have attacked the Democrat Convention in Denver when they nominated the current occupier of the White House.  This attack, along with other suspect incursions by an over-zealous DoJ like Ruby Ridge, led to a growing paranoia on the Right.  As soon as the White House changed hands, the paranoia shifted to the Left.  Regardless, if we can't feel that we can trust our government, we will come apart at the seams.

4. March 21, 2010: Passage of Obamacare.  This single act of partisanship - ramming an unpopular piece of legislation down the throats of the American people with barely a nominal majority is probably the most divisive act of the last thirty years and it will take many years to undo and overcome.  "We'll have to pass the bill to see what's in it." Will go down as the most irresponsible act of (non) governance in the history of the Republic.  Brute force has become the standard of governance.

If you have any suggested dates, pass them along for consideration!

Rumble on!

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