Polarization is damaging the prospects for the 2016 campaign

This country is unquestionably polarized on a number of issues. The issue of terrorism is specifically front and center at this time. The final Republican presidential debate has certainly brought much of that to the fore. I have provided a link to the transcript of the debate for those who may not have watched it, including both the undercard and the main debate.

With all the attention continuing to be paid to Donald Trump, it is too easy to overlook the fact that the Republican candidates project a significant level of diversity. Rick Santorum, for example, talked about Islam as being different. He states that it represents a political governing structure, Sharia law, and as such has no rights under our Constitution. Lindsey Graham countered that there are 3,500 Muslims fighting for this country in the United States military. He contended that they are patriots. The religion of Islam, he says, should be left alone. It is the radicals and terrorists we need to fight.

A look at some of candidate Chris Christie's rhetoric is emblematic of dangerous fear-mongering for political gain. He says President Obama and Secretary Clinton have betrayed the country. He paints a picture of mothers filled with fear as to whether their children will come home safely from school, and he proclaims himself as the one who can keep America safe from terrorists.

Yet candidate Rand Paul makes it clear that if we ban certain religions or censor the Internet terrorists win. Jeb Bush notes that we need Muslims on our side in order to defeat the Islamic State group. Clearly the Republican candidates represent pretty diverse views.

There are tidbits of wisdom coming from some of the Republican candidates some of the time. They are difficult to discern, however, because the dominant theme and repeatable sound bites are all about how one candidate can be tougher than another and can replace a weak Obama administration that has failed to keep us safe.

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A Baltimore Sun editorial focuses on this point. The editorial notes that candidates have proposed such outrageous solutions as killing innocent family members of terrorists, firing at Russian jets over Syria, carpet bombing Middle Eastern cities, and sending large numbers of ground troops into harm's way. That list doesn't even include Donald Trump's plan to exclude Muslims from entering the United States.

The Baltimore Sun then uses strong language to assert, "What Tuesday's debate revealed is a party teetering on the edge of madness." The editorial reminds us that President George W. Bush, just days after the 9/11 attacks, described Islam as a "good and peaceful" religion and "[made] clear the U.S. was not at war with a religion but with a 'radical network of terrorists' who 'blaspheme the name of Allah.'" It is not clear that such a position is even an acceptable one to many in our country today.

Finally, the editorial makes the point that while the threat of terrorism within our country is a real threat, it is still quite a low risk threat for each of us. The writer points out that the number of deaths in the Paris and San Bernardino attacks combined is less than half the number of deaths in Baltimore this year by gun violence. Terrorists are "winning" because we have become disproportionately fearful compared to the actual level of risk.

Another editorial by Andres Martinez suggests an even more disturbing thought. Martinez feels that the candidates are mostly spouting the rhetoric of the public. The effects of polarization have become so great that both sides have resorted to demonizing the other. Martinez says we are "losing our ability to respectfully and constructively disagree with governing bodies of a different party." The extreme partisanship of media outlets is but one reason for this increasing polarization. We are listening only to news sources that agree with us.

It should give one pause as we continue to watch poll numbers for Donald Trump rise regardless of what he has to say. There are important issues that need to be debated in this campaign. There are candidates on both sides of the aisle who have something to contribute to that debate. We can't, however, have a debate if we are not listening to each other. We can't expect to have a positive campaign if credible Republican candidates feel compelled to move further to the extreme right because of Donald Trump's success with voters.

Martinez reminds us of the oft repeated phrase that in a democracy, "the people get the government they deserve." What kind of government do we deserve? What responsibility do we have to get the 2016 campaign back on track?


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