Politics, politicians and political discourse have been my bread and butter for decades. Within them I quite literally made my living. They have been my passion — and my sporadic aggravation — for as long as I can remember. I have been elected to public office, I have written and delivered innumerable political speeches, published articles, made media appearances on behalf of my own and my employers’ constituents, and I have labored long and hard to build coalitions with both likely and unlikely allies on matters of public interest.

I have believed, for the most part, that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle shared my commitment to good government and to doing what was best for their constituents. I remember describing the opposing political party as the noble opposition. Respectful, or at the very least civil, dialogue between opposites was the leitmotif of that commitment. Now we must listen to people describe those in the opposite political party in the ugliest of terms: godless, un-American, crazy, enemies, traitors. Many people feel they can no longer be friends with someone who holds divergent political views, or they feel they have to agree not to discuss politics.

How, then, did we get from the civil norm I described above to the situation we see all around us today? I believe a number of factors have emerged that have driven division even deeper into our national psyche.

Since our founding, we have always been a country with marked differences. We fought an internecine war between our Northern and Southern states, and our Eastern states have thought, at times, that their Western counterparts were ill-educated and poorly mannered, while Westerners thought the East elitist and opinionated. Yet our political life managed to function with at least the patina of shared concerns, responsibilities, values and intentions. Until one party decided to ignore the public good.

Let’s take the apportionment of radio licenses. Since there are vastly more people interested in having a license than there are radio frequencies, the solution, from the beginning, was to allow the public to retain ownership of the airwaves, while a business or person would pay for and utilize the license, though the resource they exploited would be forever owned by the American people. As it became apparent that some broadcasters, especially after television was added to the airwaves mix, were using their licenses to push a singular agenda, lawmakers created the Fairness Doctrine. The doctrine essentially said that if you use a public resource, you owe the public a responsibility to be genuinely fair and balanced. This mandate worked quite well for 25 years, with radio and broadcast television listeners able to turn to virtually any frequency or channel and be assured they would ultimately hear an evenhanded discussion of the issues affecting their lives.

Today, we live in a vastly different environment. Thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s gutting of the Fairness Doctrine, the people’s resource is now being used almost exclusively to push a one-sided agenda, particularly on radio. Roughly 91 percent of talk radio is conservative, while 9 percent is progressive. Television talk shows are the opposite. They are far more liberal, but there are also far fewer of them, and they are clustered in the late evening hours, unseen and unheard by vast swaths of the American public. This imbalance has a direct effect on our national discourse and the polarization of our politics. Democrats are deeply upset that the airwaves — the public’s airwaves — are being utilized in a manner that smacks of censorship and an agenda being pushed. The issuance of a license does not give a station owner the right to misuse a publicly owned resource.

Add to that the loud, strident voices of the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage and Beck — denigrating and vilifying elected officials and ordinary citizens who dare to state a viewpoint different from theirs — and you have a volatile recipe for ugliness in public life.

Then, in 2008, came the election of Barack Obama. Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Obama had to be nearly perfect. A loving father, with a first and only wife, two beautiful daughters, and a strong record of service to his community, Obama was everything Americans have repeatedly indicated they wanted in a president. Yet for virtually his entire presidency he was mocked and maligned by Republicans who challenged his place of birth, his intelligence, his loyalty, his race and so much more. An entire movement, the tea party, arose to challenge his presidency. And in our own home state, the Republicans have tried mightily to disenfranchise voters and blatantly rig the political system in their favor in ways never before seen.

This is our country, collectively. It is not one political party’s or another. It is imperative we return to speaking in plurals, not singulars.

To read the full article in the Pilot, including the counter-point by John Rowerdink, past president of the Moore County Republican Party,  click here.

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