Interesting Times

July 5, 2016
by Rick Cole

Interesting Times

“There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times.”

Robert Kennedy

As we endure the most tumultuous presidential election since 1968, I am reminded of Robert Kennedy’s haunting words.  In our world, in our country and even in our own community, these times are more unpredictable, the tone of politics is more toxic and the divisions between us are sharper than at any time in my adult life. 

In these interesting times, it is easy to lose sight of how, from the beginning, our country was designed to contain built-in tensions.  Our Constitution was itself a product of compromise, balancing large states and small; centralized power and autonomous individuals and states; even slavery and freedom.  Our stability has come from a delicately balanced system of checks and balances. 

Our political differences were quickly institutionalized into dueling parties that embodied (and confined) our ongoing struggles. Presidents have been assassinated, presidents have been defeated, but every four years America has always reliably held another election.  It’s a system that has endured titanic challenges, including a bloody civil war, for more than 225 years. Our system is far from ideal, yet it has long outlasted every one of the “winner take all” alternatives tried throughout the world.

We have built our local government structure with the same kind of inherent tensions.  Santa Monica’s City Charter balances an elected City Council with an appointed professional staff headed by a city manager.  Centralizing power in the elected officials would provide a more responsive local government, but likely would also be more subject to corruption and mismanagement.  Conversely, purely professional administration can become insulated and tend toward serving itself.  So we live with the messy compromise of always balancing the two. 

Similarly there is inherent tension between citizens and their city government.  Groups and individuals want what they want – and they usually want it now.  Citizens are forever exasperated with the sluggishness of government in satisfying their immediate (and conflicting) desires.  Those who serve in government are equally frustrated with the pressures to continually respond to the shifting (and conflicting) desires of vocal residents. So we live with the messy compromise of always balancing the two.

My point is that these tensions are not new – they come with our systems of national and local government.  However, what is disturbing now is the growing impatience, even intolerance of these tensions.  There are strong crosswinds blowing nationally and locally – and the common current is “winner take all.” 

Instead of recognizing the value of institutions that allow us to reconcile our differences, there are rising voices who insist “the system” is rigged.  They are bent on imposing their views and sweeping aside all compromise.  With this new militancy comes a demonizing of adversaries.  Those who hold other views are increasingly seen as “enemies” rather than fellow citizens.  There is less and less room for self-doubt.  The other side is not just wrong.  They are liars.  Crooked.  Evil.

This, of course, is also not entirely new.  There have always been shrill voices.  But it does seem to be much, much worse in these interesting times.  And this polarization seems to have seeped into even local politics, often drowning out more restrained voices. 

This is not a personal complaint.  I have a thick skin.  I try not to take insults personally even when they are directed at me.  But I worry about where this is all leading.  Particularly when I talk to people who insist that civility is for losers; that if you disagree with them, you are not just mistaken, you are corrupt.

I continue to think these voices do not represent a majority.  But too soon to tell.  Perhaps we have come to a time when a majority are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  Perhaps the time has come to sweep aside the checks and balances that have served us all these years.  Perhaps some charismatic leader -- or “the people” -- will rise up and short-circuit our checks and balances.  It is certainly in the air these days.

Yes, we live in interesting times.  And sometimes it does feel like a curse.

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