Perhaps I should feel at least slightly guilty. Last night, I successfully impersonated an irate right-wing taxpayer--without uttering one word I did not believe. In doing so, I demonstrated to myself how strongly partisan affiliation, whether real or imagined, colors what we perceive--and what we do.
I was at a monthly meeting of Reach Out Wisconsin, an innovative town-hall-type meeting in which people with strong conservative and strong liberal views eat dinner together, hear speakers, and discuss issues in a civil, safe environment. The evening's topic was what state governments can do to create jobs.
I arrived at the meeting intending to ask the speakers about a recent audit report that found the Walker Administration has been failing to exercise adequate oversight of $226.5 million in economic development grants and loans. Featured speaker Andrew Feldman described eight specific jobs programs that states have successfully implemented, but neither he nor the other speaker directly addressed accountability issues, so I remained eager to ask my question.
Before I did, however, a right-wing participant asked a fairly hostile question (atypical for this group), saying that he had no confidence in government's ability to "pick winners and losers" and was tired of "having our tax money just thrown at the problem." Although his concern was essentially the same as mine (how can we make sure that public funds do, in fact, create jobs), his question had a clear anti-government slant while the question in my mind had a clear anti-Walker slant.
The presenters made no mention of the audit report in their answer to the first question, so I decided I would still ask mine. In the bipartisan spirit of the evening, I decided to frame my question in a way that would make the common ground apparent.
When my turn came, I said that my question followed up on the earlier questioner's accountability concern and I reiterated his point that public funds must be carefully spent. I then briefly described the recent audit findings, while avoiding any direct accusations or inferences of my own. Finally, mimicking the tone of the earlier questioner, I asked "So how can we get state government to make sure businesses really do create the jobs they promised to create with our tax dollars?"
Both presenters responded with several ideas for effective oversight of jobs-creation programs, although neither would say anything more committal than "I hope so," about whether the Walker administration will soon improve its oversight of grants and loans to businesses.
What surprised me, however, was the response I received from my fellow participants in the social hour that followed, when we were instructed to talk to people from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Despite the fact that my question had highlighted the Republican administration's failure to oversee businesses' use of public funds, every person I spoke to had me pegged as a conservative--even a rabid one. My sympathetic reference to the earlier right-wing questioner and my repeated use of the phrase "our tax dollars" created for me, in others' eyes, an entire array of assumed political beliefs.
No harm done with that misunderstanding. Some of my conversations were a little disjointed until the misapprehension was cleared up, but it was also kind of fun to be mistaken for a right-wing conservative.
Earlier in the day, however, I'd had a more disturbing experience.
Following a Facebook link, I'd read Obama's Lawless Presidency Close to Totalitarianism in an online publication, Investors' Business Daily. I won't summarize it; I'll just report to you that the authors' search for evidence of totalitarianism included counting how many times the phrase "The Secretary shall determine..." appears in the Affordable Care Act. (1,563, if you care as much as they do.)
That's not what bothered me. I read through that article, its comments, another item on Fox Nation about the IBD article, its comments, a related item on the Rachel Maddow blog, and its comments. In this three-arena debate over whether Obama is totalitarian, I found only one comment that referenced Obama's claimed-and-exercised authority to detain or assassinate American citizens without trial or even indictment.
Neither the conservative nor the liberal citizens in any of those arenas can possibly be delighted that they have lost their 5th Amendment right to due process of law before a president orders their murder. And I cannot imagine any planet on which defining due process as 'closed-door deliberations within the executive residence' does not qualify as totalitarianism.
And yet only one person mentioned it.
The conservatives avoided mentioning Obama's kill list because Republican leaders and right-wing publications support that sort of extreme executive authority. The liberals defending Obama from charges of totalitarianism did not mention it because it does not--to put it mildly--support their case.
Everyone was staying in his or her partisan corner, choosing to surrender a life-or-death civil liberty by remaining silent, rather than to defend it by speaking up.