Apparently, some of my fellow Americans want to secede from the union, undaunted by the disastrous result of that infamous attempt back in the 19th century. They are likely congenital cranks, destined to be dissatisfied.
But that troublesome sort — a few hundred thousand who have petitioned the White House to form a separate country — represents just a tiny fraction of the nation’s voters. Most of us are happy to turn the page on a poisonous presidential campaign and usher in a season of reconciliation.
Here’s a gift to help get us started: Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida has been defeated in his bid for re-election. That alone will help us resume an attitude of charity toward those with differing political views and open room for a re-emergence of the idea of a common good. West was a one-man siege on Fort Sumter.
It’s not clear how a man who was once a distinguished Army lieutenant colonel came to be a caricature; a bilious, bigoted bomb-thrower who used only words of disrespect to describe Democrats and only rhetoric of hate and disdain to describe Muslims. Nor is it clear what American principles he fought for — remember the First Amendment? — in Iraq.
As a black Republican, West represented an opportunity for the GOP to open its tent to more people of color and to show that it could accommodate conservatives who were proud of President Obama’s ascendency. Instead, West was contemptuous of the president, as he was of all Democrats.
Last April, stirring the paranoia that is rampant on the fringes of American politics, West channeled the infamous red-baiter Joseph McCarthy. At a campaign event, he declared his belief that “there is about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.” He offered no evidence for the charge.
But perhaps West was at his most unhinged with his vicious and utterly baseless attacks on Islam and its followers. He was in tune with one of the odder obsessions that grip right-wing voters — the notion that the United States, its Constitution notwithstanding, is vulnerable to a takeover by those who practice Sharia law. West claimed the covert assault has already begun.
In a public appearance in March 2010, he launched into a tirade against an insipid but harmless bumper sticker that graces many vehicles, the one that has symbols of the three major religions and the word “Co-Exist.” West claimed that motorists who promote such tolerance would “give away our country … Would give away who we are, our rights and freedoms and liberties.”
The congressman rode the Tea Party wave into Congress that year, but he was defeated on Nov. 6 by the more diverse electorate that usually votes in presidential years. It included not only blacks and Latinos but also Muslims, agnostics and atheists. They propelled West’s challenger, Democrat Patrick Murphy, to a narrow victory.
West’s loss won’t end the ugliness in Congress or the gridlock that grips Capitol Hill, of course. There are plenty more men and women in Washington willing to speak of their political rivals as un-American lackeys who are aiding and abetting the enemy.
But the demise of some of the Hill’s worst Islamophobes — including Rep. Joe Wals (R-IL), who called for “godly men and women” to “stand in the face of the danger of Islam” — will help to tamp down the bigotry that has left law-abiding Muslim Americans fearful and depressed about their country. That’s reason enough for celebration and hope.
As a GOP congressman, West enjoyed inviting his political rivals to leave the country. But that sort of rhetoric has no place in nation struggling to find a way back to compromise and bipartisan solutions, so I won’t treat West to a dose of his own medicine. It’s enough that he was forced to leave the House of Representatives.
Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.com