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Don't Be Bosnia

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, November 14, 2000 --  

As partisans in Florida file ever more lawsuits and recount ballots, America is being dangerously polarized. Democratic Party protesters in Palm Beach, led by former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, scream at Republican counter-demonstrators about the minutiae of the polling process. Republicans and Democrats across the country bitterly accuse the opposition of partisanship while utterly failing to recognize the self-serving nature of their own actions. Representatives of the Bush and Gore campaigns shamefully misuse the rule of law to achieve political advantage.

Increasingly, America's political discourse makes it looks less like a peaceful beacon of democracy, and more like a superpower-sized Bosnia -- torn apart by political hatred.

Partisans on both sides fervently believe that much is at stake. In the past week, I have heard both Democrats and Republicans half-jokingly say they would flee the country should the other side take power. From such attitudes, you would think that the parties agree on nothing. In reality, they have become so engaged in the battle that they have betrayed their principles to become mirror images of one another. Think this is overstatement? The Bush campaign, which once claimed to support the right of states to be free of federal intervention, filed a lawsuit to have the federal government stop Florida from hand-counting ballots. Jackson, the black-activist who has criticized Jewish power and once slurred Jewish-populated Manhattan as Hymietown,1 went to support Jewish retiree voters in Palm Beach.

How can anybody not see the absurdity of the actions of party leaders? The reason, of course, is because they are wearing the blinders of partisanship that throw all hopes of rational thought out the window.

Admittedly, many Americans have not chosen sides in this battle. But the huge number of people that have taken sides have done so with such venom that it risks drawing ever more people into the fray. Such is the nature of a polarized society. When ethnic fighting broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, open-minded people resisted becoming part of the combative atmosphere. As friends and family were torn apart, and loved-ones were victimized by one side or the other, eventually almost everyone was involved.

Clearly, Americans do not face the same dangers of political or ethnic violence as do more polarized people of Bosnia, Ireland and Kosovo. But the behavior of Americans in this crisis has been so shameful that it should forever put to rest any idea that America is somehow different from more strife-prone regions of the world. The same kind of groupthink that inspired the Nazi Holocaust, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the peace process in Israel drives the partisans in this post-election battle.

While Bush and Gore certainly share much of the blame, their efforts to whip up partisan rage would yield nothing without willing followers, ready to fight for "us" against "them." Those of us who have managed not to take sides must resist the temptation to join friends and family. Don't do it. Instead, remain an engaged, objective observer and try to calm the flames of hatred in others.

We must persistently remind the partisans of what would be objectively clear in a less-polarized atmosphere: it doesn't really make a difference which candidate wins. Both Gore and Bush ran as centrists within their parties, and were criticized by more extreme members. Real differences certainly exist between presidential challenges of Ralph Nader on the left and Pat Buchanan on the right -- but hardly at all between Bush and Gore. The practical difference between the candidates is further lessened by the Republicans' maintenance of only narrow control of both houses of Congress. Bush's proposals on taxes, Social Security and Medicare are little more that light versions of the same proposals made by Gore. Were Gore to win the Presidency, he would be forced to compromise with the Republican Congress to the extent that his positions would probably be moderated to facsimiles of Bush's proposals, anyway.

In all likelihood, one candidate will soon place an insurmountable obstacle before his opponent, ending the growth of America's bitter divisions, and leading to a slow and painful period of healing. At least I hope and pray this happens. Given the disgusting behavior I have seen from American partisans over the past week, I have no doubt that the growing bitterness and hatred would eventually lead to widespread violence.

1. Washington Post, Jackson Admits to Ethnic Slur;
Candidate Makes Conciliatory Stop At Synagogue, February 27, 1984