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King: Partisan ties cloud our thinking

POSTED: July 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.

My daughter saw the books on my desk. "More Bush bashing," she remarked. "Not at all," I replied.
However, from the title of the books and the controversy surround the authors, I could understand her comment.

The book by Richard Clarke screams out, "Your Government Failed You," but Clarke is no Bush basher. He was an assistant secretary for intelligence in the Reagan administration, served under President Carter, and was an adviser to both President George W. Bush and his father.

In like fashion, Scott McClellan's book "What Happened" is no insider tell-all book but rather a serious look at what both authors believe to be a dangerously flawed political system.

Actually, both men speak rather well of Mr. Bush. True, there is a lot of blame to be found in both books, but it is not directed so much at the president as at a toxic political culture that has divided the nation and spawned so many wrong decisions.

A serious critic of either party would do well to read both books. If you can only read one, read Clarke's. He has the longest history in government.

However, the purpose of this column is not to talk about the failures of the Bush administration but to comment on uninformed and unthinking reaction of the American public to anything political. My daughter's comment is a good example.

The nation has become dangerously polarized, never more so than in Washington. McClellan calls it the "permanent campaign."

This is a condition where the line between campaigning and governing becomes blurred, where pollsters drive policy, and winning popular support for the current administration's position is more important than a studied analysis of the position itself.

Perhaps this is normal for a nation that grew up on high-powered advertising and big league sports. Product loyalty morphs into party loyalty. Campaigning is akin to team spirit, and winning, not governing, is the goal.

But we all want the best for our country. Our future depends on it. So why have we fallen pray to this very toxic divisiveness?

Even the best of us are guided by emotion, habit and self interest. Just as the advertising industry has developed and refined techniques to manipulate the public's buying habits, politicians have developed methods to manipulate the voter.

But winning an election is not the same as governing a nation, and if we the public hope to elect top-flight leaders, we had better learn how to distinguish the false from the real.

We are not the rational creatures we think we are. Often our beliefs are not based on fact or reason, but on conditions that range from cultural to deliberately deceptive. When we look closely we can see the following patterns.

People tend to believe whatever those around them believe. When everyone in your culture shares a belief, you simply assume it is true. Culture can be defined as family, neighborhood, church or business.

People believe in something because they want it to be true. Self-delusion is a very human characteristic and has even been linked to human survival. People believe based on limited evidence or evidence that is invalid.

And finally, we become emotionally attached to one side of an issue. Our side is good; the other is evil. We simply can't evaluate new evidence fairly because we are afraid of siding with the enemy or offend our friends.

Unfortunately, some people become so emotionally involved that they lose perspective and act in ways that are or should be unacceptable, and this is why political ideology is so dangerous. Ask yourself why so many congressional votes divide along party lines. In a culture where you go along to get along, independent thinking is not appreciated.

For all of the above, perhaps the greatest danger we face is cynicism. When Clarke and McClellan came out with their respective books, many critics attacked the authors. They were accused of being disloyal opportunists out to make a buck.

I doubt that anyone making these charges actually read either book, but the question remains: Why didn't they speak out earlier?

Whatever the reason, they are talking now, and there is little hope of avoiding the mistakes of the past if we don't understand how and why they happened.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.



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