NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Nationally syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts issued a plea for Americans to return to the ideals that bring them together during a visit to Bethel College.
Pitts spoke to a college class in the morning Sept. 12, ahead of an evening speech in a packed Memorial Hall in celebration of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution’s 30th anniversary. The organization, affiliated with Bethel, is one of the oldest regional peace institutes in the United States.
Citing comments Abraham Lincoln made three years before the beginning of the Civil War, Pitts said the country is again faced with the question of living free or dying by suicide.
“Our problem is not our economy, it’s not foreign relations, it’s not our crime rate,” he said. “Our biggest problem at this junction in history is us. We don’t like each other very much.”
He said partisan political strife, which built over decades, accelerated through President Barack Obama’s two terms — the divide sinking to a degree Pitts has never seen in his lifetime during the Donald Trump campaign and presidency.
As the left and right have moved away from the center, pragmatism seems a quaint thing of the past.
Candidates choose voters
Pitts cited three culprits for today’s acrimony: 1) gerrymandering, drawing the boundaries of political districts for partisan advantage, a practice embraced by both Democrats and Republicans; 2) mainstream media’s failure to hold politicians accountable to tell the truth; and 3) a racist and close-minded Republican Party, in Pitts’ view.
“Maybe you wonder how it is possible in a Congress that, according to the polls, is only slightly more popular than acid reflux, [that a particular member of Congress] can have sky-high approval rates,” Pitts said. “With gerrymandering, you flip democracy on its head. Instead of voters choosing their candidates, the candidates choose their voters.”
He suggested people reclaim the power to draw district lines from state lawmakers and put it in the hands of nonpartisan bodies. With less homogenous districts, elected lawmakers will have greater incentive to engage in healthy compromise, which is good for the greatest number of citizens.
Compromise, and even conversation, are placed further out of reach when voters and lawmakers don’t even hold basic facts in common. Pitts said this is the result of a 20-year campaign by Fox News to undermine the mainstream media’s neutrality with accusations of bias.
“Mainstream media damaged themselves by being weakened and mealy-mouthed,” he said. “Years of being attacked by conservatives have convinced the news media to be ‘fair and balanced’ to conservatives who quit listening to them years ago.”
A robust news media willing to describe the world as it exists is necessary to press Republicans on what the party prioritizes. Pitts said Republicans had been paralyzed by a decision on Obama’s inauguration night to work against any aspect of his policy.
“The Republican Party is paralyzed because it can’t even agree with itself, [and now] white supremacy has re-entered the mainstream,” he said.
“. . . We should just treat people like they are people first, children of God first; and deserving of all the dignity and compassion that comes with that.”
His recipe for improved discourse includes getting Americans to realize they have more in common than in tension, and voting for hopes rather than fears.
“Agitate and advocate not just in the streets but in the court room and the board room,” Pitts said. “Get out and vote. The next chance to vote is a chance to put the brakes on a runaway train.
“. . . We’ve always been smaller than our ideal, but if we can hold to our ideal, you won’t make a perfect nation, but whatever follows is better than the mess we have now.”