Updated: Dec 4, 2020
The vast majority of Americans, polls reveal, lament the ugliness and incivility that punctuate our politics. The contentiousness, coarseness and divisiveness have spawned widespread apathy, and undermined faith and confidence in our system. Those who continue to participate agree that our nation requires wholesome remedies, sooner rather than later.
While it is unrealistic to expect a standard of decorum that reflects lawn tennis language, it is not too much to expect elements of civility. Consider five modest pledges that citizens can accept to immediately improve the tone and quality of our political dialogue in the weeks that remain.
First, let’s agree to stop the practice of political labeling. The practice of endorsing or dismissing an idea merely because it is liberal or conservative is a lazy way of avoiding the work of citizenship, which requires analysis of the merits of laws, policies and programs. In fact, the practice is simplistic, circular and little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Political labeling, moreover, ignores the fact that views and values are shifting in response to changing circumstances in a fast-paced world in which policy responses to emerging challenges require compromise.
Worse, labeling provides a pass to candidates who learn that they can woo and win an audience vulnerable to descriptions and judgments grounded in ideological characterizations. Indeed, we voters should expect candidates to explain the reasoning that supports their positions on issues.
Anything less violates a central principle of democracy: Governmental officials are accountable to the electorate. Accordingly, it is the duty of those who seek or hold office to answer questions so that voters are fully informed. The occasional response from a candidate—“I’m not going to talk about that”—does not pass muster in a nation governed by republican principles. Voters’ questions should be fair, of course, and candidates should patiently and fully explain their positions.
Second, since the quality of civic dialogue in a democracy requires an abiding respect for facts and evidence, let’s agree to reject the politics of distortion and demagoguery. Nothing is accomplished through resort to straw man arguments. In addition, fooling people into embracing arguments and positions is a hollow victory. Such fraudulent tactics contradict the premise of winning “consent” from one’s fellow citizens since people who are deceived are hardly consenting to something.
Third, let’s agree to avoid the politics of destruction. Politics is not war, and words are not bullets. It is wise to recall that in a democracy, which is fluid and reflective of changing views, that today’s opponents may be tomorrow’s allies. Bad faith and destruction preclude compromise, which is the engine that makes the political system work. We can and should be tough on issues, but tender toward people.
The effort to demonize or destroy those who differ with our views tends to curb interest in politics, undermines political participation and exacerbates voter apathy and cynicism. At a juncture when voter participation is declining, it is important to remember that in a democracy, we seek social conditions that encourage participation and honest give-and-take in the discussion of policies, programs and laws.
Fourth, as we strive for a better, more civil and informed dialogue on the issues of central concern to voters in the forthcoming election, let’s avoid the use of terms that are dehumanizing. Let’s speak of “undocumented immigrants” rather than “illegals. ” That pejorative characterization may appeal to a segment of voters, but it debases their human existence, and ignores the valuable work that they perform and the many contributions that they make to our society, culture and economy.
Fifth, let’s ask candidates, and citizens everywhere, to resuscitate the practice of common courtesy and civil tones and refer to others, where appropriate, as Mr. and Ms.
Let’s agree that themes of civility and courtesy require of us all a measure of restraint so that we do not misrepresent the views and positions of those whom we oppose. That practice serves only the cause of confusion and deliberate distortion. Rather, let us hear in the public square a fair representation of the views with whom we disagree. What a concept!
If we can implement but a few of these ideas, we’ll all feel better about our politics.
*Adler is President of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection of the law and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and presidential power. His scholarly writings have been quoted by the US Supreme Court, lower federal courts and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.