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Water Cooler Warfare 

I love America, but I'm not sure I love what our nation is becoming. I'm not talking about the specific policies of one president or one political party. I'm talking about the rapid disintegration of civil discourse -- one of the essential freedoms that we supposedly cherish in our supposedly free society.

It has happened at virtually all levels. Turn on the TV, and you see talking heads (mostly self-appointed "experts" or "analysts") screaming at each other under the guise of political debate. Truth is, most of them are whores for one side or the other. Truth is always the first casualty in war, and this election is a war.

Candidates for the highest offices in the land hurl insults at one another from the stump and even during face-to-face debates. A woman whose son died in combat is arrested and handcuffed for carrying a protest sign outside a Bush rally. Conservatives protesting a Kerry rally are accosted and abused by a hostile crowd of Kerry supporters.

Whatever happened to the First Amendment?

The breakdown is not confined to the national level. Locally, candidates for sheriff trade accusations of murder and corruption. Online chat rooms have become an outlet for anonymous character assassination and all forms of defamation.

After 31 years of covering politics, I thought I could stomach just about anything in the game, but this election season has brought the hostilities into our homes and offices. It's not just politics anymore, it's personal.

The other day I found myself having a political discussion with two co-workers in a law office kitchen. We don't share the same political philosophy, but each of us is an educated professional perfectly capable of having an honest, rational, even-tempered, debate about national politics.

We were practically screaming at each other.

I raised a question about the environment, and immediately I was called a hypocrite for driving an SUV. Touché, but what about national policy?

I was just as guilty. One co-worker said the election, to her, presented a clear choice between a good moral leader and a rudderless opportunist. I shot back with a snitty comment about "doing homework" before making such statements. What an asinine thing to say!

How did we get to this point? I'm not sure anybody has an answer to that question, but I do hope that we as a country can stop insulting one another at the water cooler after the election. I'm not optimistic. There's an entire media industry built upon The Great Divide -- and it's working very hard to keep things that way.

I suppose one could argue that it's just a sign of how polarized our nation has become, but that begs the question. The real issue is, America has lost its middle ground. Every debate, every issue, every election has become a zero-sum game. No prisoners. All or nothing.

And it has filtered down to individuals, separating friends and co-workers.

Thank God my wife and I share political philosophies. I wouldn't want to have to endure the Schwarzenegger treatment. Just to be sure, I'm going to keep dinner banter light and fluffy for the next few days. Go Red Sox! Didn't you just love that lunar eclipse? Honey, may I approach ... ?

My late friend and teacher Stephen Ambrose often noted that America's great strength was its unflappable sense of optimism. No matter what, we have always believed that things would constantly get better, that we as a people would pull together to make sure of it.

As America tears itself apart at the seams this election season, I find it difficult to be optimistic. If we lack a core set of values around which we can all rally -- and on which we can all agree -- then we'll never pull together as a nation. Nobody wants to find the middle ground. Somebody's going to win this presidential election and somebody's going to lose. That doesn't mean that half of America has to win and the other half has to lose. It doesn't mean we have to keep screaming at each other. The war against terror will take a long time to win. In the meantime, maybe we should start with a cease-fire at the water cooler.


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