A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit with my 16-year-old nephew from Kansas City. As we were casually walking and talking he posed the question, ” Why do people always have to shout and argue about politics, why can’t they just talk calmly about it?” As I thought about it I realized just how important that question was. I recognized that while certainly there have been times in our history during which the volume and temperature of political discourse has been turned up, most often the political environment has reflected basic rules of civility. However, during the past several years those rules have been cast aside and political conversation has adopted the rules of a “zero sum game”. You are either with me or against me. If you are against me you are a bad person and are not deserving of my respect, my compassion or my understanding. This is why we have seen a freshmen senator call his Majority Leader a liar. It is why we have seen personal insults thrust like swords about the stage of political debates. Equally troubling, it is why we have seen false, baseless and damaging accusations made about people on the other side of a political issue. What’s more, those attending political rallies feel cheated if they don’t hear this kind of damaging verbiage coming from their favorite candidate, which in turn simply serves to reinforce and validate the behavior and expectations of the lowest common denominator within the electorate.
The lack of civility at every level of our political system has not only corrupted the process but has resulted in laws and actions that do not reflect the wishes of the majority of the body politic. Candidates find themselves boxed into an extreme corner, unable to navigate an exit without appearing weak or indecisive. Imagine a new reality show entitled, Immigration Poker. All four players ante up with the need to tighten the borders. After the cards are dealt each of the players look at the possibilities and request cards to enhance their plans. Player number one starts by betting on a fence. Player number two increases the bet to a barbed-wire fence. Player number three increases the bet to an electrified fence. Player number four increases the bet to a wall, a very high wall. All but player number four fold and and he wins with the very high wall. The crowd cheers and the winning solution to the illegal immigration problem is a wall, a very high wall. The other three players never discuss any kind of fence again because they do not want to appear weak on the illegal immigration issue. The most extreme solution wins and any chance of compromise towards a sane solution is lost in the cheer of the crowd.
Because the rhetoric has become so black and white there is no room for even the mere mention of less extreme solutions. Gray is considered the color of the weak and the word “compromise” has been turned into a “four letter word”. The tragic result is that the most sane, rational and workable solutions are cast aside while the most insane, irrational and unworkable solutions are blindly supported. Even more troubling is the fact that the movement towards these kinds of solutions is being fueled by the most ill-informed, xenophobic, angry and resentful portions of the electorate. Furthermore, it is being funded by the most self-serving, often single-issue oligarchs this country has seen since the days of the “Robber Barons”. These two groups, the ill-informed “true believers” and the selfish, self-serving oligarchs, have come together to form an “unholy alliance” that views compromise as wrong-headedness and extremism as patriotism. The end result is solutions that defy sanity or rationality and the promotion of an attitude that views facts and knowledge as an unnecessary encumbrance.
My hope for the new year is civility and sanity. In the words of Star Wars, “May the Force be with us”. We’ll need it.