She told me about her friend Howard Baker, the three-term Republican senator (1967-1985), who governed in the Senate as minority leader and then majority leader by mastering the art of compromise.
Known as the “Great Conciliator,” Baker knew how to stay near the center and broker deals that both Republicans and Democrats could support.
Nowadays, pragmatic politicians like the 86-year-old Baker are aghast at what they consider extremist obstructionism in Congress, fomented mostly, to their regret, by the Grand Old Party that they call home.
The center has been vacated, he said, and rendered uninhabitable. The right wing controlling the party of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower has nothing but scorn for the opposition party and has no intention of cooperating in order to govern. Better to crash the state than to compromise.
Right-wing Christians who egg on extremist Republicans and provide their pseudo-intellectual rationale are similarly scornful of other views. God, they seem to believe, is entirely and uncompromisingly on their side.
What now? That is the question we should all be asking.
Can a nation survive radical extremism at its helm? Suddenly, scenarios like elections being canceled because Democrats might win, and internment camps being set up to incarcerate protesters like the Occupy movement as “domestic terrorists,” no longer seem conspiratorial paranoia.
When those in power hold all others in total disregard and value aggrandizing their power more highly than maintaining an effective democracy, a nation grounded in laws, rights, compromise and mutual respect is imperiled.
Instead, we find power flowing to bullies with money to spend, religion to exploit and gun nuts to unleash.
Am I overreacting? I certainly hope so. I hope the signs I am seeing don’t add up to this doomsday scenario. I hope wiser and cooler heads prevail. I hope a rising tide of vigilante violence, hateful campaigns and criminalizing the “other” wake us up.
But I am less optimistic than I was. I see too much “magical thinking” — as in, maybe this whole mess will just go away, maybe leading candidates will pull back from the extreme edge. I see too little discernment of the destruction that extremist politicians are doing, and the anti-democratic torrent of big money serving big money.
I find too many progressive church leaders worried about institutional survival and still fighting old battles about property and rules, while democracy itself comes under assault and millions of lives are being cast adrift.
I see centrists in the Southern Baptist Convention turning inward, rather than standing up to extremist bullies in their ranks. In an echo of what is happening in Islam, I see reasonable leaders in conservative denominations deciding that politics is too toxic right now and maybe this ugliness will just sort itself out.
Extremists on one side open the door to extremists on the other side, of course. Witness the apparent ascendency of anti-police rage and crash-the-establishment showiness in the Occupy movement. Will progressives have the courage to stand against extremism on their side of the aisle and to call an otherwise reasonable movement back to its roots?
The missing ingredient, it seems, is courage. Extremism wins the early battles by making people afraid, and then it turns to hatred and scapegoating. I wish we heard more from the Howard Bakers of this world.
— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.