Another shooting, another call for unity, another symbolic act. Another round of placing blame and denying personal responsibility. Representative Mark Sanford (R-SC) says Trump is partially to blame for the shooting and former Speaker Newt Gingrich blames the “the left.” The President calls for unity, even as he attacks our democratic institutions.
After U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) was shot while meeting with constituents in 2011 there were calls for unity, and claims that this time it would be different. But of course unity only lasted the length of the press conference, it wasn’t different, and of course it was someone else’s fault for all that. It is always easy to say “tell the Democrats and the Bern-sters” that those with whom you disagree politically are not enemies to be destroyed, and call those who urge respect naive (as someone did in Facebook conversation yesterday). It is always easy to commit to balanced arguments and fundraising emails that don’t rely on scare tactics and hyperbole after the next election. It is easy to pass the democratic buck to a cartoon “them” and an eternal next Tuesday.
Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) expressed deep concern with the state of political discourse in the U.S. one day after a gunman opened fire on a congressional GOP baseball practice.
“The country is fraying at the edges and we’ve got to pull the country back together,” Palmer said Thursday on “Fox and Friends.”
“We’ve got to be able to re-establish a civil discourse, otherwise the future of the nation is in grave danger,” he added.
I cannot control what anyone else does. I cannot force other pundits to stop jumping to conclusions for self-promotion and a chance to say “I told you so” regardless of what just happened. I cannot make members of Congress stop ratcheting up the soundbites to get on TV, or make former elected officials sit down and shut up. I cannot make interest groups and political parties stop pushing their favorite political pet rock after every event or sending clickbait emails with predictions of doom unless they get $10.
What I can do is try to behave in ways that respect our political process, that are intellectually honest, and that treat those with whom I disagree with respect. And so can you. I can also applaud those with whom I disagree for being respectful, and call out others who are being over the top. You can do that too.
There are several things you can do when you engage in a political discussion:
First, engage in a discussion. A discussion is not a chest-thumping we’re right and they’re evil party worthy of Valhalla. A discussion is a consideration of ideas.
Assume you are wrong. You might be right of course; I have confidence in your intellectual and moral worth. But an honest examination of a view other than yours may give you a better understanding of the merits of the other side, and might even get you to shift your position. Democracy is about moving ideas forward, not tying them down.
Assume those with whom you disagree are good and rational people. They may not be, but if you start with the assumption they’re good people you will be engaging in discourse worthy of our democracy. There is no downside to being respectful. If you assume they are by definition evil you will never persuade them and you will have betrayed a basic democratic principle.
Keep the discussion focused on the discussion, not on people or personalities. Secretary Clinton’s behavior during the 2016 election has precisely nothing to do with how I behave toward my Republican friends today. I similarly do not ask my Republican friends to explain the President’s social media habits when talking about the best way to improve our health care system.
If you work for an advocacy organization or politician, consider whether or not you can make the same point or have the same impact without resorting to vitriol. There are always ways to be persuasive without shouting. The sky isn’t always falling.
Your act of respectful political behavior is unlikely to change the world. That doesn’t really matter. One should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. I stop at stoplights in the middle of the night because one should stop at stoplights. As they say, character is who you are when no one is looking.
Last March, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke to a group of interns , extolling what might be called America’s Civil Religion. He condemned political speech that fosters fear and loathing of those with whom we disagree, and he encouraged robust and respectful debate. I wrote a piece praising the Speaker’s speech for the conservative website IJ Review. The Speaker’s speech is terrific, well worth reading.
“But in a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other. We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold. We don’t shut down on people—and we don’t shut people down. If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better. We don’t insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too. “
Unfortunately not long after Speaker Ryan gave his inspirational speech to interns, he betrayed his own commitment. As I wrote at the time, I took the Speaker at his word and I was wrong. I tweeted my columns to the Speaker — tweets he almost certainly never saw. But that wasn’t the point. It didn’t cost me anything to call out bad behavior and it was my small light in the darkness. I have also gone out of my way to applaud civil political discussions on Facebook, and have tried to engage in political discussions that drive toward policy difference and away from personal attacks. My little bits will no more change the course of American politics than my picking up litter in front of my house will clean the planet – but as a member of the American community it is the right thing to do. Your voice in the choir will not raise the hymn higher to the heavens, but that isn’t why you sing.
When discussing the short-term unemployment benefit extension that he is stalling, to the chagrin of Democrats, Coburn said he is “180 degrees in opposition” to Pelosi but that “she is a nice lady.”
That comment drew boos and jeers from the crowd, but Coburn asked the crowd for calm and spoke about civility.
“Come on now. She is nice – how many of you all have met her? She’s a nice person,” Coburn said. “Let me give you a little lesson here. I hope you will listen to me. Just because somebody disagrees with you don’t [sic] mean they’re not a good person. And I want to tell you, I’ve been in the Senate for five years and I’ve taken a lot of that, because I’ve been on the small side –- both in the Republican Party and the Democrat Party.”
If you see a political debate that is aggressive on policy and respectful of those expressing the policy, call that out for praise.
If you see a political debate that relies on demonizing the debaters while the substance of the discussion becomes an afterthought, call that out as well.
If your elected official shows respect for those with whom she or he disagrees, applaud the respect. If those around you demonize those with whom they disagree, call them out on it.
Democracy, like faith, is not about how others behave toward you – it is about how you behave toward others. And like all ideals, our democracy only works if we work towards it.