President Trump’s State of the Union address, which had been delayed by the federal government partial shutdown, was finally presented to Congress this week. The speech was lengthy, packed with predictable applause lines and obligatory calls for unity and swift action—and I doubt it changed a single mind in the chamber. The sneering and snark was flying through social media from pundits, late night comedians, journalists, celebrities, and political opponents even before the speech was concluded. The battle lines were obvious, the political gamesmanship was all too apparent, and the criticisms were predictable.
If you took a step back, you would have to wonder what someone living outside of our nation’s deeply partisan bubbles would think of the vehement criticisms they heard or read after President Trump’s speech. Considering that the overall national economy is doing quite well, unemployment is at historic lows, efforts are being made to extricate American troops from deployments overseas where the original missions seem to have been accomplished, another summit with North Korea to discuss nuclear de-escalation is scheduled, trade imbalances are being addressed through tough negotiations, domestic manufacturing is booming, and more intractable national problems with healthcare costs and public education are being evaluated and discussed, it might seem a puzzle. Although there will always be differences of opinion regarding the nature of our challenges and possible solutions, there seem many reasons to hope for a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation and its people.
But many are still filled with a frothing rage….
The explanation for this boils down to two words: immigration and abortion. Although I strongly suspect that the vast majority of the American people occupy the high middle ground, our political leaders—egged on by their most vociferous supporters—seem trapped in deep and narrow valleys of extremism.
Take immigration, for example. As has been pointed out repeatedly, the Democratic Party was until only recently perfectly content with policies that restricted entry into the U.S. and favored the swift deportation of those who entered illegally. This was once a mainstream and moderate position that attracted support from across the political spectrum. Speaking at a town hall in California in 2009, President Obama neatly summarized the position held by the many who elected him twice:
“…I think what we have to do is to come together and say, we’re going to strengthen our borders—and I’m going to be going to Mexico, I’m going to be working with President Calderón in Mexico to figure out how do we get control over the border that’s become more violent because of the drug trade.
We have to combine that with cracking down on employers who are exploiting undocumented workers. We have to make sure that there’s a verification system to find out whether somebody is legally able to work here or not. But we have to make sure that that verification system does not discriminate just because you’ve got a Hispanic last name or your last name is Obama.
You’ve got to—and then you’ve got to say to the undocumented workers, you have to say, look, you’ve broken the law; you didn’t come here the way you were supposed to. So this is not going to be a free ride. It’s not going to be some instant amnesty. What’s going to happen is you are going to pay a significant fine. You are going to learn English.
You are going to—you are going to go to the back of the line so that you don’t get ahead of somebody who was in Mexico City applying legally. But after you’ve done these things over a certain period of time you can earn your citizenship, so that it’s not—it’s not something that is guaranteed or automatic. You’ve got to earn it. But over time you give people an opportunity.
Now, it only works though if you do all the pieces. I think the American people, they appreciate and believe in immigration. But they can’t have a situation where you just have half a million people pouring over the border without any kind of mechanism to control it.”
Now close your eyes and imagine President Trump saying exactly the same words.
The reaction is easy to predict. He would be immediately denounced as a xenophobic white supremacist who was planning to build an “immoral” wall of hatred, and this would be just the start of a crescendo of anger that would sweep the blogosphere like a tidal wave of toxic waste. It could perhaps be argued that the exceedingly suave speaking style of President Obama was the sugar that made the medicine go down more easily, but it is also certainly true that Democratic proposals regarding immigration policy have undergone a startling and radical shift over the past ten years that has rendered any negotiation or compromise nearly impossible.
The Democratic position on abortion also seems to have been hijacked by extremists over the past decade or so. According to The New York Times, Hillary Clinton had this to say on this matter in a landmark speech back in 2005:
“I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available,” she said….
Toward the end of the same speech, she even described a possible future where “the choice guaranteed under our Constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.”
This seems very different from today’s Democratic support for abortion on demand up to—and now including—the point of actual birth. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that the recently passed bill in New York that codified these ideas throughout that state is crossing a dangerous and distinct line into support for infanticide in all but name only—and it is not only in New York that these notions are becoming mainstream Democratic dogma.
Although his comments on this topic have been eclipsed by the outrage over a deeply offensive racist photograph he featured on his personal page in his medical school yearbook, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam caused great concern with his comments concerning a third trimester abortion proposal in his own state:
[Third -trimester abortions are done with] “the consent of obviously the mother, with consent of the physician, multiple physicians by the way, and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities or there may be a fetus that’s not viable. So in this particular example if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Governor Northam’s suggestion that a baby born alive might be provided with palliative care only and be allowed to die flies in the face of both a physician’s solemn oath—Governor Northam is, remarkably enough, a pediatric neurologist—and the basic human decency that informs our lives. Nazi Germany encouraged the deaths of those babies born with genetic problems or serious health issues in order to strengthen their master race. However, having learned the horrible lesson of history that such practices inevitably lead to genocide, any suggestion of choosing which babies should be allowed to live—and which should be compelled to die—is firmly rejected by all but the most heartless and cruel among us.
However, state level efforts by some Republicans to restrict or deny abortion access during the first trimester of pregnancy are clearly wrong as well. The ugly and sad reality is that not all pregnancies are the result of loving relationships between men and women, some women may be utterly incapable of either carrying or nurturing a child, and others may be but a child themselves when a pregnancy occurs. To, for example, force a thirteen year old girl who has been raped to give birth lacks all compassion and human understanding of the horror she has endured and simply amplifies the trauma she will be living with for the rest of her life.
Why is it that extremism has come to dominate our politics, and what does this imply for the future of moderate and sensible positions on immigration and abortion that will allow the vast number of voters who occupy the middle ground on these issues to feel that their voices are being heard and respected? To insist that national borders serve a purpose and illegal entry should not be rewarded does not translate—as so many seem now to believe—into bigotry and hatred. To argue that late term abortions should be restricted—particularly in light of the remarkable medical advances since Roe v. Wade in 1973 that now allow even the most premature of babies to survive and thrive—is not at all equivalent to taking away the right of women to control their bodies.
Extremism in thought or action is generally marked by two signal characteristics: a tendency to hate those with differing ideas and a refusal to acknowledge the possibility of your own error. Moderation in most matters of the heart and the mind is a sign of an individual’s ability to understand and embrace the sloppy complexities of life that often require one to abandon immature and inflexible ideological beliefs. I hope that we will see more moderation and less extremism leading up to the 2020 elections. We need cooperation and compromise in order to address key issues—including immigration and abortion. Reducing the national fever of hate and insult that is corroding our governmental processes is essential. We must find a moderate path that will recognize and reconcile all values and viewpoints—or we will tear one another to pieces with our extremist passions.