by Dale Goodner
Margaret Chase Smith probably never expected that her “Declaration of Conscience” would become listed as #41 in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century. The Republican Senator from Maine, delivered that speech, on June 1, 1950, in response to Senator McCarthy. In it she called on the Senate to reexamine the accusatory tactics being used by this fellow Senator (she didn’t use Joseph McCarthy’s name). McCarthyism was a direct assault on American democracy.
She emphasized basic principles of what she called, “Americanism,” that should be safeguarded:
- The right to criticize;
- The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
- The right to protest;
- The right of independent thought.
She didn’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on: “The Four Horsemen of Calumny.” According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, calumny is “the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another’s reputation.” The four horsemen are: Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.
Her impassioned plea is more relevant today than in 1950. Thanks in large measure to something called “citizens united,” calumny is back in the saddle, and the four horsemen are running roughshod all over the media.
There is no longer any financial limit on Political Action Committees (PACs), or their power to denigrate their least favorite candidates. Thanks to unprecedented ability to disseminate fear ignorance bigotry and smear, public office is essentially available to the highest bidder. Talented public servants are an endangered species.
But Senator Smith maintained: “I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.”
This idea is being sorely tested.
According to a headline in the Washington Monthly, “Bipartisanship is Dead. Time for Democrats to Embrace Their Inner McConnell.”
This may sound humorous, but it succinctly summarizes recent political trends.
After the divisive process of placing Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell summarized the result: “Everybody decided to stand up to the mob, to not be intimidated by these people,” McConnell said. “I couldn’t be prouder of my members for refusing to roll over under all of this intense pressure, all of these lies.”
Like the president, he simply maligns the opposition.
McConnell referred specifically to opponents as “the mob,” and liars. But “these people” are still taxpayers, voters, Americans. Several years ago he famously presented his main mission: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
As a responsible Senate leader, his priority should have been focused on how to best serve our country with the “entire” governing body he leads. Abraham Lincoln (quoting the Book of Matthew) once warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
But McConnell has presided over an increasingly divided and polarized senate, preferring combat over compromise. The reality is, in our democracy, the opposition is not the enemy. At the end of the day we are all on the same team. Winning should be less important than compromise, respect, inclusion, and listening to keep our country moving forward.
Critical issues such as the looming catastrophe of global warming are overshadowed by divisive topics, aimed at specific portions of the electorate, such as affordable health care, a woman’s right to choose, or LGBTQ rights. This at a time when we could be working with other nations to build a better future for our grandchildren by developing clean energy and protecting air and water.
Political campaigns have degenerated to adolescent combat, name calling, and pandering to people’s fears and prejudice. The media blitz, funded by wealthy outsiders, shadowy special interests, and even Russian operatives, is trying to manipulate your vote.
Truth is, whether it’s national or local, your vote has never been more important. Don’t listen to slick TV smear ads! Pay attention to the voting records (not just the words) of those in office and read the actual goals of those seeking office. Remember – those who take office will set the tone for years to come.
Right now under one-party leadership there is no balance of power. Plutocrats’ growing prosperity is impoverishing posterity as wealth is moving up to the top one percent. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are under attack. Deficits are skyrocketing. Our national monuments and national parks (America’s best idea) are under threat. Environmental protection is being weakened. The only solution to this mess is in the hands of the electorate.
Only about half of eligible voters tend to participate. The results too often reveal the problem too late. America is in desperate need of your responsible informed participation. Voters have the power to force the senate to change what Margaret Chase Smith called “the accusatory tactics being used.”
Be a force for positive change. Vote on Nov. 6.
Green Bay native Dale Goodner served as chief naturalist for Peoria Park District and retired as supervisor of Environmental Interpretive Services. He and his wife Mary now live in Algoma.