There is a lesson in the passing of Ronald Reagan that is, I think, equally valid for liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. The lesson is: Don't hyperventilate about the small stuff.
I'm intensely aware of this lesson because I hyperventilated a lot during the Reagan Administration. I hyperventilated so much that I got dizzy and can't remember what I was hyperventilating about. But, I'm sure, I was outraged.
I'm not outraged any more. Maybe I'm getting old. No, definitely I'm getting old. No doubt about it. What I mean to say is: Maybe I'm mellowing with age. Looking back at Reagan, I'm struck by how much I like him. Hell, I've mellowed so much I even like Nancy.
When Reagan died, I tried to remember what it was I hated so much about him. It took me a few minutes to come up with anything that, in retrospect, carried any weight at all.
The reason I'm bringing this up is not to make either the point that Reagan was flawless or that liberals are psychotic. The point I'm trying to make is that there's an awfully lot of what seems terribly important Right Now that, a few years from now, won't even rate a mention.
For example: Bittburg. It was during the 40th Anniversary of D-Day -- or maybe the end of the World War II, I don't know. Anyway, President Reagan was scheduled to lay a wreath in a cemetary in Bittburg, Germany, where a whole lot of Americans and a handful of Nazi SS Guards were buried. What was intended as an honoring of Americans buried far from home became an incredibly big stink because of those Nazis. I guess someone found it credible that Reagan was some kind of closet Nazi sympathizer, and a bunch of other someones -- me included -- were outraged.
Thinking about that today makes me feel like a jackass. (A lot of what I did back then makes me feel like a jackass. If I think too hard about my sophmore year of college, I feel sufficiently jackassy that I want to kill myself.) I'm sure if I could remember the other things I was outraged about, I'd feel a jackass about them, too. But I don't so I'm spared all but the vague feeling that I should go back in time and appologize for myself.
Sometimes, it seems, all we have in political discourse is outrage. And while I'm supposed to be even-handed here, the pendulum has swung and the most outrageous outrage in the marketplace is conservative outrage. Oh, there are still some simmering cauldrons of liberal outrage: Moveon.org, Democratic Underground, Al Gore. But they're nothing compared to the fantastic outrage machine conservatives have up and running. Turn on primetime cable, or afternoon radio, or most of the Internet: Conservive outrage, fuming and sputtering about nothing of consequence, right there in the open.
I get irritated at conservatives for that, but I know it's really my own fault. It's my fault because, back when President Reagan was in office, Democrats perfected the politics of outrage, and I went right along with them. We hyperventilated primarily in a racial idiom, crying racism and turning blue every time someone opposed affirmative action or welfare, and we did it well. But now we're reaping what we sowed, and what we sowed was the disproportionate and disposable outrage of people like Sean Hannity.
The difference between Hannity and, say, Jesse Jackson circa 1984, is that Hannity has more issues for which outrage is a viable strategy and four hours of national air time every day to blow steam out his ears. Disagree with the war and you're on the side of terrorists. Propose a different strategy and you hate the United States. Complain that tax policy might be unfair and you're waging class warfare. Object to officially sanctioned prayers in public schools and you're anti-God. Disagree with the President's policy on just about anything and you're not just disagreeable, your'e a Bush hater.
Sean Hannity's an extreme example, but not by much. Traveling in his wake, and in the wake of hundreds of other similar "opinion leaders" of various scale, there are legions of mini-Seans expressing in strongest possible terms an anger that -- much like my anger in the Reagan years -- is simply not proportional to what they're angry about.
Ten or fifteen years from now, we're going to look back on this period with regret as we try to remember what all the huffing was about. Just as I look back on the Reagan years and think, "Was I nuts, or what," I think today's conservatives -- who are, remember, doing to us what we did to them -- are going to look back on this period and think, "Sheesh. What was I drinking?"
On the other hand, we could change the nature of the dialogue. It wouldn't be that hard. The first step is the only step we'd really need to take: Stop questioning the motives of people who disagree with us.
That's what's at the heart of all of this, I know, because that's what was at the heart of all the Reagan-inspired outrage back in the '80s. We believed that conservatism was morally flawed and that conservatives were hiding their real motivations, which were horrible oppression and a transfer of wealth from poor people to rich people.
We were wrong. This is not the same thing as saying that conservative policies were right. We were wrong in our outrage because a political system powered by outrage breaks down, whether that outrage is justified or not, and it usually isn't. In President Reagan's case, in my opinion, it wasn't. He wasn't a Nazi and he wasn't a racist. All of those arguments we had were beside the point and a waste of time.
The lesson of Ronald Reagan may be that we should all believe the best about each other because it does us no good to believe the worst. Think how our political discourse would change if we acted as if the people who disagreed with us were doing so not because they're stupid or disloyal or racist or evil, but because they had, in good conscience, simply reached a different conclusion. Maybe they have different priorities, or a different plan, or a different way of looking at things. Whatever. They're not bad people, and they deserve respect rather than invective, and we'll take a vote on it and live with the results.
President Reagan went to war every single day with Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, and at night they sat down together, just a couple of Irish storytellers with tumblers of whiskey in their hands, and were friends. They disagreed, but they respected and liked each other. That doesn't happen in an environment like the one we're in today.
Which is too bad, because it's something we could change that would help our democracy considerably.