Vexations and Conundrums

By Katina Pontikes

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Are We Done?

 

Recently I was invited to be a guest at a very exciting presentation at the Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University campus in Houston, TX. The seminar was titled “A Presidential Election in an Uncertain Time.” It was as lofty as it sounds.

The event was nonpartisan, with luminaries from both the Democratic and Republican parties presenting in panel-style discussions. Question-and-Answer periods followed each segment of the program.

The room buzzed with high energy and anticipation. The Honorable James A. Baker III was even present and would speak.

The most exciting panel for me was to see Mary Matalin and James Carville in a discussion. These two are political consultants for different parties, yet are able to have what has to be the most unusual marriage imaginable. After listening to them debate points in a very civil manner, I wondered why people in regular society have so much difficulty with political differences these days. Politics can’t even come up at dinners anymore, lest fights break out, ruining evenings and friendships.

Mary made a great point when she said that politics is not supposed to be all of life. We have families, work, and social functions too. I realized she had hit on something, as my inbox is filled with politics now, as is social media. I feel like I’m drowning in politics.

Presenters addressed the increasing polarization of America, due to politics. They explained that the country has had this issue in its history before, of course with the Civil War, but even within the Democratic Party when there were differences between McGovern and Wallace. And rancor ran high in the election between Goldwater and Johnson. However, one expert said that polarization is currently less ideology than animosity and grievances.

After four panel discussions (one moderated by Karl Rove!), there was a wrap-up where voter fatigue was addressed. People want their lives back. They want their friends back.

Several weeks passed and my husband and I were invited to dinner with new acquaintances. We were at a nice restaurant and things were going swimmingly. No one had brought up politics, though a few hints around the edges had been thrown out. Mention anything like climate or people on social benefits, and one is tiptoeing close to actual party identification. One can ascertain political philosophies based on attitudes of these key subjects. I addressed subjects with amazing neutrality and vagueness.

Suddenly, the woman of the couple turned to me and asked point-blank which side of the political spectrum I was on. Uh-oh. I was cornered. I answered, based on some of her statements earlier, “The opposite side you’re on.” Her demeanor changed from hospitable to stony.

“We’re done,” she stated coldly. She repeated this statement as though it were a dagger and she was glad to insert it. I just looked at her, not looking for an argument. Needless to say, the evening ended poorly. We definitely won’t be socializing with the couple again, nor is that desired.

Now that we find the U.S. in an election year, I am less apt to venture into unfamiliar social territory. I ask myself if the country I have known all my life has changed from America the Beautiful to America the Intolerant. I wonder if the country I once knew no longer exists.

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