Other’s opinion: On Jan. 7, we’ll have already done better

Published 5:09 pm Tuesday, January 4, 2022

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St. Cloud Times, Minn.

Three hundred and sixty days ago, the worst day in our nation’s modern history unfolded in a blur of violence and anger and misguided fervor for a cult of personality over patriotism, or even party.

On Jan. 6, 2021, it became finally, undeniably obvious that the future of our nation was in danger in a way not seen since the Civil War. More Americans died at Pearl Harbor, more still in 9/11. But never in living memory has such a threat to our national future come from so frightening a place: Us.

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As 2021 opened, there were some rays of hope. A wrenching election season was behind us — except for the lawsuits, or so we thought. Vaccines for COVID-19 were on the way. We had learned more about how to manage the virus (we could stop disinfecting our groceries in the garage, for one thing) and the relentless march of collective misfortune that was 2020 simply had to get better, right?

Then, just six days in, 2021 sank lower than the horror show that was 2020.

Was the first sign the gallows that went up on the National Mall? Or was it the “patriots” who shouted they were “coming for” the vice president? The adherents to law and order (in name only, it turns out) who beat police officers on the Capitol steps? The sight of the people’s elected representatives forced to take cover at the seat of government, driven to protect themselves from a mob that said it was ready to kill them? Or was it the photo of plainclothes officers bracing against the doors of the House, guns drawn, tension wrought deep onto their faces as the mob pushed back? Or was it the woman dying on the other side of that door, shot down in the melee?  Or was it the sight of troops camped in the Capitol to protect it from … us?

And yes, that’s all of us. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, that set the tone for a second year of unbelievably dysfunctional American life leave no “side” blameless, even though one party’s adherents acted out their revolutionary fantasies in Washington, D.C., that day.

How we got to that point is a function of how deeply our need to take sides, to identify with our own group, has taken hold of us. That’s fine and even fun when the debate is Vikings or Packers. It’s dangerous — truly dangerous, as we have seen — when tribalism stands as the defining trait of American life. When the core of our disagreements has devolved to that simplistic level — you’re either one of us or one of them, and if you’re one of them you are fair game for false accusations, threats, for beatings, for death — there’s little hope of resolving education policy, military spending, housing, the environment or health care. There’s no hope of a functioning democracy.

Political operatives since the Reagan, Gingrich and Clinton eras have for decades sown discord for simple political advantage that culminated in the insurrection. Many have admitted it out loud, or been caught on tape saying as much.

It’s their job, after all. Division is one of the most effective means of succeeding at the business of winning elections — because angry people are more likely to vote. And scared, angry people are more likely to vote for the most radical of options. So many campaigns, especially national campaigns, become a function of providing the base with an enemy. Both sides do it. Voters on both sides fall for it. It’s bad for our nation.

2022 is another election year. We won’t stop the campaign industry from using the tools of discord that have proven effective so often.

But we do have the power to fight back. Our weapons are cool heads, critical thinking, facts and dialogue across ideologies. We don’t need punches thrown at school board meetings; we don’t need to fracture long, valuable personal relationships. There is no use for wild conspiracy theories, or for gallows or body counts.

We can make 2022 better by letting cooler heads prevail, by simply choosing the high road when attempts are made to inflame.

And when Jan. 7 arrives without gunshots inside the Capitol, we’ll have already done better that 2021 America. How’s that for a low bar?

— This is the opinion of the St. Cloud Times Editorial Board, which includes News Director Lisa Schwarz and Content Coach Anna Haecherl.