The New Cold War

Steven E. Zipperstein

The United States once again finds itself in a cold war. But this time the adversary is not Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or any other foreign power. This time the adversary is us. We Americans are embroiled in a domestic cold war — a cold civil war.

The cold civil war has been brewing slowly but steadily for years. Our country has grown increasingly and bitterly torn over every important policy issue we face, including climate change, health care, abortion, gun control, immigration, taxation and foreign policy. Relations among Democrats and Republicans in Congress have deteriorated to the point they barely speak to each other, preferring rancor and vitriol rather than working together.

Last year's primary and general election campaigns featured the most divisive, hostile rhetoric ever witnessed at the presidential level and many down-ballot contests. Accusations of treason, lying and fake news have become part of everyday discourse, accompanied by personal attacks intended not just to question credibility or score points, but to destroy political opponents.

The relationship between Presidents Trump and Obama has already become the worst between current and former presidents in U.S. history, with their surrogates determined to do everything possible to delegitimize each other. Boycotts of the inauguration, early calls for impeachment and/or outright removal from office, unproven accusations of wiretapping and illegal voting all sound more like the stuff of third-world tinpot political dramas than the politics of the United States of America.

Worse yet, sporadic acts of violence inspired by the poisoned rhetorical atmosphere have become more commonplace, and the immediate past attorney general of the United States has made public comments that some interpret as encouraging even more violence. Threats against Jews, Muslims and immigrants are on the rise, including threats from the dark corners of both the left and right wings.

The current level of domestic strife in the United States ranks among the highest since the pre-Civil War period. It feels as if we are careening toward the edge of a precipice. Discussions about politics have ruined friendships, family relationships and even marriages. No one seems to believe anything they hear on television or read in the newspaper, preferring instead to trust their favorite website or Twitter feed. Faith in our bedrock institutions has withered. One feels a palpable tension in the air, and no one is sure what might happen next. We have crossed so many lines, disregarded so many taboos, and swept aside so much of our civil discourse. It feels as if we are sitting on a powder keg.

Many have commented that the current political climate resembles the Watergate era, when the relationship between the Nixon White House and the press was as bad as the current dynamic between the media and the Trump administration. But the country then was not as broadly divided as it is now. We all trusted Walter Cronkite to tell us the truth. No one argued about alternative facts. We collectively rolled our eyes at Ron Ziegler's farsical explanation of how Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, supposedly erased 18 minutes of a crucial tape recording accidentally, by contorting herself into a pretzel-like posture at her desk outside the Oval Office.

The comparisons to Watergate fail to appreciate that something much deeper, much more divisive, and much more damaging is happening within the country today. Four decades ago, we were largely united in our dislike of Nixon. There was broad agreement he needed to go. It is unimaginable that in today's world we could ever reach consensus one way or the other about President Trump. And even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, we would likely be in the same situation, with half the country continuing to clamor for her to be "locked up."

So what can we do to prevent the cold civil war from escalating into something more dangerous?

First, we urgently need a return to civility in our political discourse. This is far harder to achieve in the age of blogging and tweeting, but it is vital. Politicians, journalists and pundits need to set the example. Everyone needs to ratchet down their emotions, their rhetoric, and their desire to delegitimize and destroy opponents.

Second, we need to focus on our children. How appalling has it been for children watching the news with their parents to see the vulgarity, the disregard for truth, the name-calling and the immaturity on all sides? What kind of example are we setting for our kids, and what kind of country will we bequeath to them?

Third, we need to renounce violence. Peaceful demonstrations, marches and civil disobedience are all part of our tradition, but not violence. Our leaders across the spectrum need to make clear, with one strong, unified voice, that violence and threats of violence are unacceptable and will never be tolerated in our society.

Finally, we need to do a better job of listening to each other. Talking over each other is easy. Listening is hard. My favorite rabbi once quipped at a loud and contentious meeting of congregants that listening is the best way to avoid Alzheimer's. A hush immediately fell over the room, and the meeting resumed politely and respectfully.

We must end the cold civil war now. We must all do our part to change the current dysfunctional zeitgeist and get the poison out of our system. And we must demand our leaders in both parties do the same.

The author is the former chief assistant United States attorney in Los Angeles. He lives in Santa Barbara.

This article has been republished with permission from the author.

Hear Steve Zipperstein discuss his views on this issue in an interview with KJZZ.

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Published: Tuesday, April 4, 2017