Is Joe Biden Out Of Step In An Increasingly Hyperpartisan America?

In what was basically a throwaway line, Joe Biden said something nice about Mike Pence. The reaction from his fellow Democrats says a lot about our current political culture, and none of it is good.

During a speech that was primarily focused on foreign policy earlier this week, former Vice-President Joe Biden, referred to his successor Mike Pence as a “decent guy” as he recounted an incident that took place in Europe last month. In that incident, Pence, appearing on behalf of the President at a European security conference, was met with dead silence when he mentioned Trump’s name before the group of mostly European representatives. Given the context of Biden’s remark, and the fact that he and Pence have a cordial if not close relationship that dates back to the time when Biden was a Senator and Pence was a Member of Congress that continued after Pence became Governor of Indiana, it’s clear that Biden was speaking of Pence in this manner to make it clear that it wasn’t Pence who the diplomats were reacting to, but Trump. Almost immediately, though, Biden was met with criticism from within his own party that immediately caused him to backtrack his comments:

Former Vice President Joe Biden responded to criticism Thursday after he called Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy” during a speech in Omaha, a comment that frustrated some on the left because of Pence’s position on LGBTQ rights.

Biden’s comments about Pence came as he discussed foreign policy and how the international community had reacted to Pence during the vice president’s speech at the Munich Security Conference earlier in February.

“The fact of the matter is it was followed on by a guy who’s a decent guy, our vice president, who stood before this group of allies and leaders and said,

‘I’m here on behalf of President Trump,’ and there was dead silence. Dead silence,” Biden recounted Thursday at the Chuck Hagel Forum in Global Leadership at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The “decent guy” comment prompted a round of criticism on Twitter. Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon tweeted, “.@JoeBiden you’ve just called America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader ‘a decent guy.’ Please consider how this falls on the ears of our community.”

Shortly after his event ended, Biden responded directly to Nixon on Twitter:

“You’re right, Cynthia. I was making a point in a foreign policy context, that under normal circumstances a Vice President wouldn’t be given a silent reaction on the world stage,” he said. “But there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”

Although it was Cynthia Nixon’s tweet that Biden responded to, she wasn’t the only Democrat who criticized Biden for what seems like an innocent comment on Biden’s part that was meant to illustrate the antipathy that our allies feel for the current President, and the risks that poses for American foreign policy and American national interests. In fact, this wasn’t the first time that Biden had referred to Pence as a “decent guy.” He used the same language at a campaign rally in Illinois, although at that time he also noted that he does not agree with many of Pence’s policies. Additionally, in the time immediately after the Trump/Pence Administration took office, Biden and Pence spoke often and Biden offered advice on foreign policy and adjusting to the role of Vice-President, although it appears that the last substantive conversation between the two men was in the summer of 2017 even though they have crossed paths several times since then at events in Washington. Additionally, NBC News reported in 2017 that Pence had formed his own version of a “Vice-President’s Club” with Biden and former Vice-President Cheney who, along with Walter Mondale and Dan Quayle, make up the four current or former Vice-Presidents who are currently alive.

In many ways, Biden’s reference to Pence as a “decent guy” is a reflection of the manner in which he has conducted himself since becoming a Senator in 1973. Like many other members of his generation and the generation of politicians that served in Washington in the 70s and 80s, the former Vice-President and Senator has had a long history of developing relationships and friendships with people on both sides of the political aisle even when he had strong political disagreements with them. One notable example of this, of course, was Biden’s relationship with the late Senator John McCain, which Biden spoke about when he eulogized the late Senator at his funeral in August.

Of course, Biden isn’t the only politician of his generation to have such a view of politics. Notwithstanding the fact that they rarely agreed on politics and often referred to each other negatively in public and in private, we know now that former President Reagan and the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could also treat each other with respect and friendship. The same was true of other former politicians, such as the late Senator Ted Kennedy who, like Biden, had It harkens back to an era when politics was seemingly simpler, when it was possible to have cordial relationships with people you disagree with, and when there at least seemed to be a limit on what constituted acceptable political rhetoric. As the reaction to Biden’s brief comment about Vice-President Pence makes clear, that era has quite obviously come to an end.

The final thing to note about this incident is that it arguably indicates that Biden is indeed running for President. If the former Vice-President had decided that he was not running, then it’s entirely likely that he would have let the criticism of his harmless compliment toward Pence go unresponded to. He most certainly would not have responded to a comment from someone whose only major political “accomplishment” was to be soundly defeated in her only bid for political office to date. The fact that he did respond at all, and to Nixon specifically, seems to me like a strong indication that he’s already thinking like a candidate that will have to fight for his party’s nomination in an environment that is far different from what he faced in 1988 or 2008.

Thanks in no small part to the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Democratic Party has moved at least somewhat to Biden’s left over the past several years, and Biden cannot ignore this fact if he’s going to have a chance in an already crowded field of candidates. While this doesn’t mean that a candidate who is basically conventionally center-left like Biden can’t win the nomination, especially in a field where there are many candidates vying for the support of the “progressive” wing of the party and leaving the centrist lane wide open, it does mean that he cannot afford to alienate these voters either. This apparently means, at least for some of those on the left of the party, that acknowledging that at least some Republicans might not be as bad as they at the head of their party, that people can disagree without being disagreeable, and that it’s possible to speak respectfully to people even when you disagree with them, is not acceptable. This makes Biden something of a fish out of water in his own party and suggests that he’s going to have a difficult time pleasing this increasingly vocal hard-left wing in his own party while remaining true to his principles and his character.

In many respects, the reaction to Biden’s comment is another reflection of the extent to which hyperpartisanship has taken over American politics.  I’ve discussed this several times before  — see here, here, and here for just three examples — and, as I’ve noted each time the dangers of this hyperpartisan approach to politics for both the nation and the culture are rather obvious. A political philosophy where, by default, you view the people you disagree with not just as opponents in a political debate but as evil, wrong, and stupid is one guaranteed to create the conditions that make accomplishing anything pretty much impossible. In a nation of more than 300 million citizens and roughly 235 million people who are at least eligible to vote there are inevitably going to be issued on which people disagree, and in many cases there are far more than just “two sides” to a given issue. Additionally, the people who do vote are going to be influenced not only by what they see on television and read online and elsewhere, but also by any number of other factors. In that kind of environment, the idea that any one of us have all the right answers and nothing to learn from people who disagree with is is both dangerously arrogant and unrealistic, but incompatible with the pluralistic representative democracy we live in. Nonetheless, in many respects, this is what modern American politics has been reduced to, and it only seems likely to be getting worse before it gets better.

The divisions that this hyperpartisanship is rooted in are endlessly reinforced by pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle who eagerly turn their opponents into enemies who must be ridiculed endlessly and destroyed. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump excelled in this particular skill, especially during the race for the Republican nomination that during which openly attacked a wide variety of groups and people and, attacked his opponents not based on the merits of their ideas, but in exceedingly distasteful, personal ways that seemed more appropriate for a fight between two children on a playground than a Presidential debate involving adults with wide experience in the political and business worlds.  Trump wasn’t doing anything new, of course, he was just bringing out onto the debate stage and the speaking circuit the same political vulgarity that, by 2016, has become such a common part of America’s political culture. In that respect, while Trump’s victory in 2016 was something that surprised political analysts and pollsters, it shouldn’t be surprising that he succeeded because he was speaking the language of modern American politics better than his opponents did and he used it to his advantage that nobody had before. Unfortunately, his success means that others are likely to engage in similar actions in the future.

To be fair, this hyperpartisanship has become a staple among Republicans ever since the 1990s, and the rise of Trump is just an indication of the extent to which it has taken over the entire party. It’s something you see every day on social media, on cable news, and in articles posted even on seemingly reasonable albeit partisan publications. It runs counter to how things are supposed to work in a pluralistic representative democracy such as ours, where living with the fact that people will disagree with you and that you have to accept the fact that you’ll like never get perfection out of any politician are truths that need to be accepted if we’re going to be something other than a nation where people are constantly at each other’s throats. As I noted, Republicans forgot those basic truths years ago and now that same hyperpartisanship seems to be developing in the Democratic Party. This isn’t healthy for the country or for our political culture and it is only going to make it harder for the nation to respond with a united voice when it becomes necessary due to events at home or overseas.

It’s partly because he harkens back to a time when politics wasn’t infected with hyperpartisanship that I am hopeful about a Biden candidacy even though I do disagree with him in many policy areas. The question that this incident raises is whether even someone like him can resist the hyperpartisan tide because if he can’t then I’m concerned for what that means for the future, because I don’t think it means anything good.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Modulo Myself says:

    Pence is the guy who went to a football game so he could leave because several African-American players knelt. He’s dogshit and everybody knows it. Also, his wife teaches at a school which practices child abuse.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Not that I really care one way or the other, but why would Biden bother acknowledging a doorstop?

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  3. Teve says:
  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    My big concern right now is that Sanders continues to lead in the polls, ends up winning, and November ends up being a choice between the Republican Russian stooge and the Democrat Russian stooge.

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  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    in many cases there are far more than just “two sides” to a given issue

    That doesn’t mean all of them are equally moral. The fact is that Pence even now continues advocating for violence toward LGBT people. He’s not a nice guy.

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  6. Teve says:

    At CPAC a few mins ago:

    Daniel Dale
    @ddale8

    ! Trump, shouting and gesturing, re-enacts his call for Russia to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails. He suggests this was a joke the media unfairly didn’t treat as a joke. There is a loud LOCK HER UP chant.

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  7. James Pearce says:

    Question: A pro-lifer and a LGBT advocate walk into a bar. Which one is the “decent guy?”

    Answer: “I dunno. I need more info than that.”

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  8. Kathy says:

    I want to bring up two quotations.

    One is by captain Sheridan in Babylon 5: “Never start a fight, but always finish it.”

    The other is by Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

  9. drj says:

    The question that this incident raises is whether even someone like him can resist the hyperpartisan tide because if he can’t then I’m concerned for what that means for the future, because I don’t think it means anything good.

    This is a pretty terrible both-sides-do-it take.

    It’s not just that Republicans started with the hyperpartisanship (or that they turned it to eleven), it’s rather that it is impossible to find common ground with someone who is shilling for Trump without becoming a terrible person yourself.

    a guy who’s a decent guy, our vice president, who stood before this group of allies and leaders and said, ‘I’m here on behalf of President Trump,’

    This says it all: Pence stood there on behalf of Trump.

    That is: the same guy who pisses on the Constitution, who gleefully seperates children from their parents, who praises dictators, who brags about committing sexual assault, who called for the death penalty for five innocent kids, who violated campaign finance laws, who is an unrepentant racist, who is a serial liar, etc., etc., etc.

    Decent people don’t represent moral degenerates.

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  10. Modulo Myself says:

    Also, it’s pretty obvious that Trump is suffering from dementia and should not be in power. Anybody who is halfway decent would be using the 25th amendment to get him out. They wouldn’t be pretending this guy has cognition. If this were President Hillary Clinton rambling for two hours about generals and their names she would have been out in five seconds. Instead, it’s like what are you going to do about the demented brain jello big boy President?

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  11. Teve says:
  12. al Ameda says:

    @James Pearce:

    Question: A pro-lifer and a LGBT advocate walk into a bar. Which one is the “decent guy?”
    Answer: “I dunno. I need more info than that.”

    (More likely) Answer: “Uh, I’ll have a Lagunitas IPA, thanks ….”

  13. James Pearce says:

    @drj:

    Decent people don’t represent moral degenerates.

    “Decent people” and “moral degenerates” are subjective assessments.

    Mike Pence’s stand on LGBT issues comes from thinking he’s one of the “decent people” and that gay people are the “moral degenerates.”

    As for Biden, he’s the type of guy who believes there’s decency in everyone (there is!) and that’s what you look for, the common ground not the unforgivable ideological flaw. Understanding that, it’s not so strange that he would call Mike Pence a “decent guy.”

    @al Ameda: I’m a lager man, myself, preferably one of Mexican or Japanese origin. I like some of the domestics too, but I’ll get a Corona or a Kirin over nearly anything else.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    @James Pearce:

    Question: A pro-lifer and a LGBT advocate walk into a bar. Which one is the “decent guy?”

    Answer: “I dunno. I need more info than that.”

    Your analogy doesn’t really work, because Pence is a lot more than pro-life.

    There’s a difference between a pro-lifer and an anti-gay zealot.

    The former is attributing humanity to a clump of cells, and trying to protect people. I may disagree on when a clump of cells becomes human, but I think the goal to protect people is a fine one.

    The anti-gay zealot, however, is trying to prevent people from being free to live their lives even when it hurts no one. They try to phrase it as if they are protecting tradition, but when your argument is that it devalues marriage to let those people get married, it’s clearly bullshit.

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  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    Being against same-sex marriage would be bad enough, but Pence still thinks homosexuality should be a crime.

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  16. Franklin says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The fact is that Pence even now continues advocating for violence toward LGBT people.

    Pretend I’m ignorant (okay, I am) – in what way does he do this? By promoting some type of conversion therapy?

  17. Gustopher says:

    @James Pearce:

    Mike Pence’s stand on LGBT issues comes from thinking he’s one of the “decent people” and that gay people are the “moral degenerates.”

    So, maybe people should stop saying he’s a “decent guy”.

    As far as beer goes, I like dark beer in dark months, and light beer in light months. (Not “low calorie light beer”, but pilsners and such), dallying with IPAs and Sours as the mood strikes.

    Stoup brewery makes a lovely porter, and Chuckanut Pilsner may be the best thing ever. Georgetown Bodizafa is a great, strong IPA, and Fremont 77 is an excellent session IPA no stronger than a pilsner. Seattle has good beer.

    To quote Justice Kavanaugh, “I like beer.” It doesn’t sound like a threat when I say it though. I’m like a chocoholic, but for beer.

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  18. James Pearce says:

    @Gustopher:

    The anti-gay zealot, however, is trying to prevent people from being free to live their lives even when it hurts no one.

    Well, that’s my view, but I’m an atheist liberal with a lesbian mother.

    I hope someone who disagrees with me on this subject would just call me wrong rather than question my fundamental decency.

    So, maybe people should stop saying he’s a “decent guy”.

    I keep thinking about that time John McCain told that crazy lady that Obama wasn’t an Arab Muslim: “He’s a decent family man, a citizen I just happen to have disagreements with.”

    We should be more like McCain, less like the crazy lady.

    I like dark beer in dark months, and light beer in light months.

    I endorse this strategy if only for aesthetic reasons.

    What do you think of the New Belgium Brewing Company?

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  19. drj says:

    @James Pearce:

    As for Biden, he’s the type of guy who believes there’s decency in everyone (there is!) and that’s what you look for, the common ground not the unforgivable ideological flaw.

    As I wrote:

    This says it all: Pence stood there on behalf of Trump.

    That is: the same guy who pisses on the Constitution, who gleefully separates children from their parents, who praises dictators, who brags about committing sexual assault, who called for the death penalty for five innocent kids, who violated campaign finance laws, who is an unrepentant racist, who is a serial liar, etc., etc., etc.

    So, of course, we are not talking about a single ideological flaw here. But you knew that.

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  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Franklin:

    As I said, he thinks homosexuality should be a crime, that is, armed men should bust into LGBT people’s homes, kidnap them, and kill them if they resist. There’s also have been reports he thinks that homosexuals should be executed.

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Pearce:

    I’m an atheist liberal with a lesbian mother.

    No you’re not, you’re a trumper who likes to pretend they’re a liberal even though no one believes you.

    I keep thinking about that time John McCain told that crazy lady that Obama wasn’t an Arab Muslim: “He’s a decent family man, a citizen I just happen to have disagreements with.”

    Note that McCain said that after having the microphone taken away from the lady in question. He didn’t talk about what a decent person she was, he deplatformed her.

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  22. James Pearce says:

    @drj:

    we are not talking about a single ideological flaw here.

    No, we’re talking about dehumanizing political opponents based on some minor ideological disagreement and then justifying it.

    @Stormy Dragon: Figure it out.

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  23. gVOR08 says:

    I give up, what good thing has Pence done for which I, or anyone else, owe him respect?

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  24. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Pence might be a decent person in his personal life while he advocates for abhorrent policies in his public. That’s an important distinction because many sociopaths and many authoritarian leaders are decent and nice persons in their personal lives. Many high ranking officials in Nazi Germany were likable persons in their personal lives. Not every dictator is a cartoon villain.

    Not knowing to separate these two things is dangerous.

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @al Ameda: Not an IPA fan. Can I order a gin and tonic instead?

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: To be fair, it is possible for him to be both (the “liberal” part would be constructed reality, of course) at the same time. He does imagine that he is a liberal and many of his archetypical positions may be more liberal than conservative. He sees the mindless (and repeatedly demonstratedly brainless, too) Trump positions as principled contrarianism, and may be allowed that bit of constructed reality, too.

    YMMV. That’s my take. It must be hard to be the light rail commuter in Pearce’s head. Confusing, too.

  27. Franklin says:

    I’m really liking the sours these days. I’m happy with an IPA, although I think they give me more headaches (maybe just because they tend to be strong). Stouts are good, but I can only drink half a pint before I’m full. Probably would’ve been best if I started with what I don’t drink: anything Light/Lite or Foster’s, I guess most of the mass-produced stuff.

  28. Michael Reynolds says:

    There are no decent people in the Trump administration. That’s like Trump talking about ‘very fine people’ in Charlottesville. It does show Biden is out of touch, not just with his party but with reality.

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  29. dmichael says:

    Shorter Doug: Democrats need to be polite and kind in the face of a stream of invective and personal attacks from Republicans and they need to be okay with those in that party who want to harm other people. Nonsense.

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  30. al Ameda says:

    @James Pearce:

    @al Ameda: I’m a lager man, myself, preferably one of Mexican or Japanese origin. I like some of the domestics too, but I’ll get a Corona or a Kirin over nearly anything else.

    I’m with you on all of the above. For Japanese I always order Sapporo, and for Mexican I usually ask for Pacifico. There is so much good craft beer out there now, this is a golden age for beer.

  31. al Ameda says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    @al Ameda: Not an IPA fan. Can I order a gin and tonic instead?

    Sure go ahead, put it on my tab.

  32. gVOR08 says:

    @al Ameda: I lived in TX in ‘70 and ‘71. The county was dry, meaning no normal bars or distilled spirits, but you could buy wine and beer pretty much 24/7. One of the pleasures was discovering that you didn’t have to drink watery Coors and Pearl like everyone else. You could get Tecate and Dos Equis and Modello, and for cheap.

  33. An Interested Party says:

    I hope someone who disagrees with me on this subject would just call me wrong rather than question my fundamental decency.

    Oh, so it’s merely wrong to want to treat LGBT folks as second class citizens and to approve of using torture to make the gay go away rather than being indecent? As a cisgender heterosexual it’s hardly surprising that you feel that way but I wonder if your mom agrees…

    We should be more like McCain, less like the crazy lady.

    Ahh, but being more like McCain would involve telling Pence and other homophobes that being gay is not simply a lifestyle choice that can be “cured” through conversion therapy…see, in your flawed analogy, Pence is the crazy lady…

    No, we’re talking about dehumanizing political opponents based on some minor ideological disagreement and then justifying it.

    In this situation, it is Pence who is dehumanizing people rather than anyone who thinks he’s indecent for feeling that way…

    Someone like you who lived back in the 60s wouldn’t have called out segregationists for having monstrous views but would have said they just have a different opinion…

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  34. James Pearce says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: To be fair when I say I’m liberal, it’s a description of my views, not what team I’m on.

    @al Ameda:

    There is so much good craft beer out there now, this is a golden age for beer.

    In my younger days I had a shelf with a row of dead soldiers, all different shapes and sizes and colors. It was like a mosaic of good times and delicious beer. Ah to be young again.

    @An Interested Party:

    As a cisgender heterosexual it’s hardly surprising that you feel that way but I wonder if your mom agrees…

    My Mom, who was a cisgender heterosexual once herself, has known plenty of homophobic people in her life. I think she’d defend some of them as fundamentally decent people.

    In private that is. With a million pitchforks and torches staring her down she might capitulate to the mob just like Biden did.

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  35. Lynn says:

    @James Pearce: “We should be more like McCain, less like the crazy lady.”

    And yet, this:

    When presidential candidates appear at public forums, passions about the field are often on vivid display. Monday, Senator John McCain received a question from a woman in Hilton Head Island, S.C., that was blunt and harsh.

    “How do we beat the bitch?” the woman asked.

    Mr. McCain was obviously uncomfortable, trying to deflect the vitriol with humor and offering to give a translation. But he did not condemn the questioner, instead calling it an “excellent question.”

    He then addressed the question without any apparent doubt as to whom it referred.

  36. Tyrell says:

    We see a time of unparalleled hatred and enmity. This is now prevalent in politics, and I have watched it being pushed in the news media. We see people jumping on Joe Biden, a decent man who probably is old school when it comes to civility and respect. He makes some friendly comments to a colleague and some people freak out. How about their behavior?
    What we really hear is that “your hatred is wrong, but my hatred is okay”. “I am not greedy. You are greedy”. That is the dialogue of today. People have differing opinions and are instantly labeled “racist”(always), “homophobe”. There was a time in politics where our leaders would disagree, but respect each other. There was a time in our news media when there was not all this hollering and accusations.
    But I do not see this in the lives of the people out here. On a daily basis I see people going about their work, commutes, shopping, dining, school, recreation, and other activities. They are friendly, respectful, mannerly, and helpful. I do not witness hollering, arguing, name calling, anger, or hatred (with rare exceptions, usually when tv cameras are present or parking lot rage).
    Could it be that the politicians and news media need to get out from their “wall” and see how the citizens in real America behave, interact, and get along? They might learn something.

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  37. Teve says:

    @Lynn:

    “How do we beat the bitch?” the woman asked.

    I should have taken a photo of it, but it’s relatively common, but last night I was in traffic behind a truck that had a 1 foot by 1 foot Confederate flag sticker near the “TRUMP THAT BITCH” sticker.

  38. An Interested Party says:

    My Mom, who was a cisgender heterosexual once herself…

    But now she’s a lesbian? So it was just a lifestyle change? One day she just thought, “Hmm, maybe I’ll just try that out…”? No wonder you don’t understand why Pence is repulsive…

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