Shades of the recent town hall meeting in Petaluma, the name-calling associated with the health care debate came to Congress on Wednesday night. “You lie,” Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted at the President of the United States.

Embarrassed and fearful of the political fallout, the House GOP leadership quickly instructed Wilson to apologize, and so he did, no doubt disappointing the folks who like to shout early and often.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona was among the first to condemn  Wilson’s attack. McCain, a war hero and the Republican nominee for president in 2008, is wise enough to know that this is not just about politics and manners. It’s about the wellbeing of the country. If the people elected to represent a nation of so many different regions, backgrounds and ideologies can’t work together, all of us, blue states and red states, will be left with a nation less safe and less prosperous.

Politics has always been and always will be a contact sport. People disagree, sometimes loudly. Issues are complicated. Conflicting interests must be fought for and compromised.

But it isn’t mud wrestling – or at least it shouldn’t be.

In case you missed it, we have our share of problems. On the short list, count the threat from terrorists, the worst economic conditions in 75 years, a health care system that is collapsing under its own weight, mountains of debt and rampant cynicism toward government, business and everything in between.

Closer to home, state government is dancing around the functional equivalent of bankruptcy, local governments are in crisis, and the public schools are imploding.

Given all that, one would expect that Americans would want a political system that functions.

In 2009, successful governance doesn’t get easier when the barriers that separate us are more numerous. Consider what has changed in recent years:

-Population studies confirm that Americans are choosing to reside around people who think just like they do.

If you live in Sonoma County, chances are you are confounded by the fact that 46 percent of American voters thought Sarah Palin should be the next vice president of the United States. Sorry, it’s their country, too.

-For better and worse, newspapers and a handful of television networks once served as the primary sources of news, creating a kind of common language for civic debate. Today, the Internet and cable television offer an infinite number of opportunities to share information – but also an infinite number of ways to divide us into tribes.

No one should be surprised that conservatives who get their information from Fox News and liberals who get their information from MSNBC live in alternate realities.

-What passes for journalism has changed, caught up in the appetite for celebrity, scandal and conflict.

-In politics and in the media, interest groups, consultants and ideologues make a good living exploiting our differences. But what works for them also tears at the fabric of the values we share as Americans.

-We live in an anxious time in which people are left to fear the threat of another terrorist attack, the prospects for their families now that their jobs have moved overseas and the stresses associated with a pace of change unprecedented in human history.

It’s not a good use of our time to curse the fates and imagine that we could turn back these changes. But what we can do is acknowledge their existence and their contributions to the divisiveness of politics in Washington, Sacramento and in meeting halls right here in Sonoma County.

Whether the subject is health care, state budget deficits or an asphalt plant in Petaluma, when we give license to the demonization of people with a different point of view, we discourage smart people from running for office and we ask for a government that doesn’t work very well.

In their anger, some no doubt enjoyed the fact that someone shouted, “Heil, Hitler,” when Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey arrived at the recent town hall meeting in Petaluma.

But I’m guessing the same folks weren’t so entertained when angry Democrats compared President George W. Bush to Hitler.

This is how it goes. Name-calling begets name-calling. Anger begets anger.

It’s a truism that our health care system is coming unstuck. In comparison to other countries, we spend more and get less. Businesses, families and government are sinking under the weight of the costs. As the baby boomers age, the burden will only grow larger. For the first time in history, some experts speculate the next generation will have a shorter life expectancy than the generation that preceded it.

Having recognized the imperative for reform, what would it say about us as a nation if we were incapable of a calm and rational conversation about the future?