Jon Stewart’s “Rally for Sanity” challenged extremists of all stripes this past weekend. The crude attempts by pundits and politicians on the fringes of the left and the right to stir up fear among viewers have made these carnival barkers wealthy and powerful — but Stewart believes the process has brought harm to America.
I believe that having the 43rd and 44th presidents labeled as “fascists” by media figures is reason enough for Americans to seek a higher level of debate. The days of media companies making millions from the delegitimization of America’s presidents must come to an end. And I’m just naive enough to believe that Stewart’s rally might make a difference.
Now that a major media figure has taken on incivility in the world of news, maybe a major politician can rise to the occasion and apply some pressure on his peers to do the same for Congress. The divide between parties is wider than ever and has little to do with ideological differences.
If the parties were ideologically pure, the battles would be easier to understand. But considering that it was a Republican president who doubled the national debt and a Democratic one who tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, each party should save the lectures on how its opponent has a monopoly on bad policies.
The divide is avoidable because the differences are so exaggerated. But a culture of distrust stands in the way of compromise and progress. That is a message we try to send every day on “Morning Joe,” and it is a lesson I learned firsthand in Washington.
I remember walking onto the floor of Congress for the first time after my election and noticing that Republicans and Democrats rarely mixed. The center aisle down which the president walks before his State of the Union address serves as a line of demarcation. The only thing missing is a Checkpoint Charlie complete with barbed wire and guard dogs.
I eventually crossed that line and began talking to any Democrat who would make eye contact. Over time, I sought out the chamber’s most liberal members to try to understand how two members of the same institution could have such diametrically opposed views.
One of the most instructive conversations I had in my first year was with Rep. Ron Dellums, a Berkeley, Calif., Democrat. The liberal congressman had long been loathed by conservatives as the type of ’60s radical who had ruined America. I wanted to meet this man so many of my ideological brethren despised.
To my surprise, Dellums was eager to talk to a young, conservative Republican. Before I could ask my first question, the liberal icon beat me to the punch.
“There’s one thing I can’t figure out,” Dellums began. “Why is it that all you guys with energy are conservative? Back in my day, you would have been on my side!”
I thought about it for a minute and then answered.
“When you think of Republicans, you associate us with Vietnam, Watergate and segregation. When I think about Democrats, I associate you with Iranian hostages, 20 percent interest rates and malaise.”
Ron looked at me and then let out a loud laugh. During the next 30 minutes, he told me moving stories about how the civil rights movement had inspired him to become engaged in politics.
Over the next few years, I spent time building friendships with other liberals who were ideological opposites of a small government conservative from northwest Florida. One of the more interesting relationships I struck up was with California Rep. Maxine Waters.
Like Dellums, Waters was considered one of the more extreme members by conservative groups. She certainly played to type in one memorable Judiciary hearing at which she suggested that all Republicans supporting a certain piece of legislation were racist.
It was too much for me to take.
After the committee broke for a floor vote, I walked over to the Los Angeles liberal’s seat and began talking to her. Waters collected her papers and started walking toward the House floor. For the next 10 minutes, we exchanged tough words that neither of us really heard, but I kept following her. By the time we got on the floor to vote, she turned to me and a smile spread across her once stern face.
“You know what, Scarborough. You’re crazy!” Waters said as she turned and walked off.
I spent the next few months seeking her out on the House floor. I would hug her during important votes after she let me know it made her nervous.
“Stop, Scarborough! You’re going to hurt my reputation back home!” she would shout in mock horror. She would return the favor during votes in which conservatives would more likely be watching.
Ten years later, when I return to the House floor, there are few members of Congress I enjoy seeing more than Maxine Waters. The fact that our friendship began in a heated exchange makes it more special.
We agree on little politically, but I know Maxine Waters loves her country and wants to help those in desperate need of her assistance back home. That keeps us talking, and that is what might make all the difference between a broken government and one that can face the great challenges of our day.
Politicians and media figures need to stop exaggerating political differences for the sake of high ratings or campaign contributions and focus on how to balance the budget, end two wars and get America back to work. If debating with respect and civility can work on “Morning Joe,” it can work elsewhere. And if I can transcend past mistakes by reminding myself daily to “Keep calm and carry on,” I’m just crazy enough to believe that there’s hope for everyone.
A guest columnist for POLITICO, Joe Scarborough hosts “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and represented Florida’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001.