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'The Roots of Division'

It’s nice to have two political parties with different values, but this polarized hatred between Republicans and Democrats is new and dangerous — a toxic environment in which democracy cannot survive, says professor Bill Meulemans, who taught political science at Southern Oregon University for 28 years.

The parties used to work together and compromise for the betterment of society, but that’s gone, says Meulemans in his new book “How the Left and Right Think: The Roots of Division in American Politics.”

“Our democracy is in real danger. I’ve never seen it this way before,” says Meulemans, who is retired in Aurora after teaching eight years at Portland State University and 12 years in conflict-ridden Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“Uncontrollable secret money is at the foundation of the problem here, compounded by gerrymandering and voter suppression, mainly of black, young and elderly voters. Also the casual acceptance of lying.”

Both the left and right live on spectra of moderates-activists-extremists, but democracy only works well when moderates are in control, influenced by activists but allowing red and blue to work together, cooperating and maintaining order for the good of the whole, he said in an interview.

The political spectrum is like a thermometer, he notes, with moderates in the middle and boiling points at both ends. Extremists work for sweeping change, don’t play well with the other wing — and at the far end of extremism is the potential for violence and revolution.

Where are we on that thermometer? In the last quarter century, activists have taken over more of the role of moderates, he says. On both sides, activists work for issues that can’t easily be forced on the other side.

Compounding the divide, he notes, is that the president “has no discernible ideology, but only favors himself. Before him, you had Democrats and Republicans able to work together, even enjoying each other. Now, you hear people won’t even date across party lines.”

When Meulemans worked as U.S. House staffer in the 1970s, he recalls senators Hubert Humphrey, a leading liberal, and Strom Thurmond, an avowed segregationist, “would denounce each other on the floor then go out to lunch” and have a good time.

“That could never happen now.”

In past decades — Meulemans arrived in the Rogue Valley in 1964 — you could come up with $200 and start a run for the state legislature, but “those days are gone. Huge sums are offered to candidates now.”

The gerrymandering of districts so they mainly represent one group of voters is a corruption used by both parties, and the courts are permitting it, says Meulemans. Voter suppression is widespread, with Wisconsin removing 200,000 names, mainly black, young and Democratic.

The corruption of democracy is not a “both sides” thing to Meulemans — and he names names. Republicans are behind the voter purges in Wisconsin and Georgia. Democrats do it in Maryland. California is progressive in naming independent commissions to redistrict.

Meulemans watches both Fox News and MSNBC, trying to see where people get their attitudes.

“You get entirely different versions of what’s happening. MSNBC will slant sometimes, but I’ve never seen them lie. Years ago, if you lied, you were outside the political system.”

But money is the big problem. In 2002 a Republican and Democratic senator authored the now-unimaginable McCain-Feingold bill, trying to get money out of campaigns, but it was neutered by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which said money is a form of speech, and corporations and unions had a First Amendment right to free speech, so they could spend as they wish on campaigns. This, said Meulemans “gave the green light to unlimited sources of secret money ... a travesty of justice that ignored the reality a billionaire has a much bigger voice than someone working at MacDonald’s.”

He focuses on how conservatives and liberals see politics, religion, economics, culture, gender issues and social values, and why the philosophy of each reflects their view of human nature. There’s also a much-needed chapter called “Political Manners.”

In professorial mode, Meulemans poses questions at the end of each chapter, to help readers learn how they became liberal or conservative, based on race, income, family, geography, experiences.

“We are not born that way. We learn it. If you were born in San Francisco in the ’60s, you will have a very different point of view than someone born in South Carolina at the turn of the century.”

Our political life is unwell and, he says, “The future of democracy is at stake in the November election this year. All these problems can get worse.

“Both parties have money from faceless sources and are guilty of not standing up to the special interests. The future is not very bright. It’s going to require moderates in both parties to take back control.

“It reminds me of a joke: a Republican and a Democrat are in the same boat at sea. You get a hole in your end of the boat but the other guy says, ‘hey, it’s in your end, not mine, so I’m not going to help you.’ It’s not long until they realize they’re both victims of their polarization.”

Meulemans cautions that “civilization is just a veneer, and if you sweep it away, people will revert to being territorial, aggressive and will lie for the sake of their own survival. When he taught at Queen’s University in Belfast, starting in 1991, students would pat him on the back, saying America had created a bright, shining city on the hill, a place of tolerance, a citadel of democracy.”

However, on a recent visit, he notes, “It’s changed tremendously. People shake their heads and say, ‘How could you do it? The hill is no more. You squandered your heritage. It took years to build up, and I fear you’ll never be able to reclaim it. Once the tolerance is violated, I don’t know how you can bring it back again. Once the fabric of society is torn apart (as in Ireland), we never really trusted each other again.’ It can happen in America.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

“How the Left and Right Think: The Roots of Division in American Politics.”