Cal Thomas and I disagree on some fairly important stuff (Thomas believes that the Bible is reason enough to uphold laws banning gay sex; I believe gay couples should have the same civil rights as straight couples), but it turns out there's some pretty important stuff on which we agree entirely:
As with religion, some people on the right have used patriotism, which should be a unifying theme, to divide Americans. My liberal friends love America as much as I do. They might disagree on some, or all, of my political and religious beliefs, but that does not make them less in love with America, much less un-American.
I don't want to put too much weight on this column (which I appreciated on several levels) or on some kind of conversion by Thomas, who has actually cautioned the right against some of its whacko excesses, like that overblown "War on Christmas" Fox gave us back in 2005. But I do think that it's a good sign that we're hearing this now. Not so much the words, even, but the tone of those words.
What makes me feel optimistic is the hope that modern conservative politics, which crossed the line from zeal into zealotry after 9/11, may be moderating its way back into relevancy. Perhaps we are turning the corner on a dangerous time in our nation's history, an era that reached its nadir in the period between November 2004-06.
The lesson for me isn't so much a lesson about conservatism per se, but about what tends to happen to people when they lose accountability to unpleasant feedback. From the fall of the World Trade Center to the mid-term elections of 2006, Republicans controlled all three branches of government. They commanded the rhetorical high-ground on security and deployed new media-management techniques to effectively set the public agenda and squelch dissent. That combination of factors seduced conservative leaders into believing that loyalty, unity and image were more important than "truth," which somehow became an almost post-modern concept in their hands.
That left rank-and-file Republicans -- not to mention centrists -- with a series of awful choices. When your leaders can't be trusted at a time when you've invested great trust and commitment in their decisions, what do you do? Switch parties? Abandon your passionately held core values?
In the end, it wasn't liberal argument that caused American conservatives to begin changing their tone. It was observation. They observed their leaders describing one reality while their own eyes witnessed something very different. This process was slowed by conservatives' broad belief in systemic liberal media bias, a belief that invalidated much of the critical information the public received from 2001-2005, but eventually the weight of incoming data simply overwhelmed the Republicans' ability to deny it.
Conservative rhetoric has been moderating ever since the fall of the Republican legislative majorities in November. The triumphalism of 2003 is gone (ironically, Cal Thomas wrote one of the more regrettable triumphalist columns after the fall of Baghdad, proposing a "cultural war crimes trial" at which liberal critics of the invasion would be held accountable for their predictions of disaster... predictions which have since come sadly true). So is the bullying stance adopted by the White House after Bush's reelection in 2004. Hubris isn't a uniquely Republican vice, but conservatives are the ones dealing with its aftermath at the moment.
So let's be clear that conservatism is not what's at stake today. All that's really required of Republicans right now is a step back from the Constitutional abyss into which they've been gazing. In trying to support tough, effective action against our terrorist enemies, conservatives trusted too much in the integrity and competency of their elected leaders. Buoyed by that unconditional support, Republican leaders in the White House and Congress crossed legal Rubicon after legal Rubicon, mocking anyone who expressed caution, restraint or respect for abstract legal concepts.
That was a mistake, but thanks to the 2006 mid-terms, not a fatal one. I see conservatives beginning to draw distinctions between their values (toughness and conviction in the face of America's enemies) and the real-world expression of those values (warrantless wiretaps, military tribunals, secret overseas prisons, torture, etc.). And that's good. So long as our system of checks and balances survives this crisis, our Republic will have a chance to correct its mistakes. That's all our Constitution promises us, really: the chance to work things out.
And so here we are, a polarized nation trying to grope its way back to unity and sanity while the White House, with about 18 months of lame-duck irrelevancy remaining on its term, burrows deeper into denial and isolation. The timing is awful -- we've got more Americans on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan than ever before -- but so it goes.
The first step in taking our country back was to stand firm against the abuse of law, and we did that successfully in November. The next step is recognizing what is good and valuable in the people with whom we disagree, and columns like this one by Cal Thomas help to take the poison out of patriotic symbols and rituals that have been tainted by political abuse over the past five years.
Happy Independence Day, Cal.